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Opinion: It’s hard out there for Oprah

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Even if most people would trade their good weeks for Oprah Winfrey’s bad ones, these days haven’t been kind to the do-gooding empress of daytime television. On Monday, Winfrey talked to reporters about allegations that a dormitory matron abused students at a Winfrey-founded South African school for disadvantaged girls. Winfrey promised to make changes in the school’s employee screening process. The queen of nice naturally avoided a ‘mistakes were made’ sort of apology by saying ‘the buck always stops with me.’ It’s the first major scandal for Winfrey’s much-touted school project (not counting the molehill-sized one started by parents comparing the school to a prison in March).

Then, on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Winfrey’s website had pulled ‘The Education of Little Tree’ off ‘Oprah’s Bookshelf,’ where it had been awkwardly juxtaposed with books by Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. ‘Little Tree’ author Forrest Carter was born Asa Earl Carter — Ku Klux Klan member and speechwriter for segregationist politician George Wallace. ‘Little Tree’, published in 1976, was billed as a memoir of Cherokee family life. Suspicions about the author’s identity were raised, especially in the early 1990s; in 1994, Winfrey acknowledged being moved by the book but claimed she couldn’t think of it the same way after realizing the truth about its author. The book’s inclusion on the virtual shelf was an error, according to a Winfrey spokeswoman, who didn’t know how long the book had been there in the first place.

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It makes sense that Winfrey would be weary (and wary) of false memoirs. And while Winfrey usually knows how to pick a good book, both ‘Little Tree’ and ‘A Million Little Pieces’ shouldn’t have passed the smell test. The former is filled with simplistic and stereotypical imagery and the latter’s dubious claims start on its first pages. (Could anyone really board a plane bloodied and and barely conscious?) Winfrey did well by publicly rebuking ‘A Million Little Pieces’ and its author James Frey, but ultimately, she still keeps the book on her website, and said that it still had an important ‘underlying message of redemption.’

Rather than dismissing ‘Little Tree’ relatively easily, Winfrey could consider giving her former favorite the same treatment, raising a number of intriguing and book-clubbable questions. Is it worse for a proclaimed memoirist to falsify his own life and call it memoir (like Frey), or to adopt a new identity racially distinct from (and oppressed by) his own (like Asa Carter)? Can we ignore the misguided beliefs of an author to appreciate a work of art (and does it depend on what those beliefs are)? And couldn’t ‘Little Tree,’ too, have an ‘underlying message’ that matters?

Those questions, and her bad week, may keep Oprah up at night. But at least she doesn’t have to worry about the writer’s strike.

*Photo courtesy Associated Press.


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