How Soon They Forget
Sebastian Junger, he of the pretty facial features and considerable fame and fortune from his book The Perfect Storm, was in town the other day. He's written a new book, A Death in Belmont, about his family's brush with the Boston Strangler. I wish I could have made it to the appearance. There's a question I'd love to have asked him: why do you think you've avoided James Frey's fate?
Frey, of course, is the Shaker Heights native and the author of the harrowing substance-abuse memoir A Million Little Pieces, which was famously revealed as a substantial fraud. But Junger had his own brush with a similar situation nine years ago. Only to the media's great shame, it's largely been forgotten.
In a front-page piece in the New York Observer (no longer online, but this Boston Phoenix piece masterfully recounts the controversy) in 1997, Warren St. James described how Junger's sloppy reporting and possibly nonexistent "facts" marred the story. St. James later went on to the New York Times, as have so many former writers for the salmon-colored New York weekly, which has become something of a farm team and a finishing school for the paper of record. That progression has, of course, rung doubly loud since it was the Times' relentlessness on the Frey story that ultimately embarrassed Oprah and Frey's publisher to stop defending the indefensible. (Junger had his own little drama with an appearance on the Oprah show, as this piece in the Sacramento Bee explains).
Throughout the Frey controversy, I kept checking various coverage, waiting for the inevitable story in which various similar cases were recounted, including Junger's. It never came, at least that I could find (please, dear reader, if you know of something, do tell).
So I'm left with two conclusions. One is no surprise: we have a short national memory. But the other is perhaps more troubling: unless you get caught up in a big media feeding frenzy, you sometimes get a free pass for your crimes, although to be fair, this piece in the Columbia Journalism Review by the energetic and generally authoritative book reviewer and investigative journalist Steve Weinberg, published a year after the controversy first broke, does find his mistakes relatively minor.
In that Phoenix piece, the author made an accurate prediction: "In the publishing world, Junger's reputation will probably not suffer." The good news, though, is that after the Frey case and the subsequent cleansing controversy, anyone caught again playing so fast and loose with the facts in a "nonfiction" book probably will suffer considerably. So there is a substantial silver lining after all.