Video: Truth vs. Truthiness
updated 1/27/2006 2:29:33 PM ET 2006-01-27T19:29:33

Oprah Winfrey apologized for James Frey's novelized memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” where Frey confesses he lied, and while they are doing this, on television, live, they get preempted in parts of the country by an impromptu news conference.  George Bush used the conference to insist that the NSA wiretaps he authorized, but not court authorized, were legal, and seemingly more importantly, were OK because they happened to deal with communications that fit the literal dictionary definition of the word “international.”

Maureen Dowd, columnist of “The New York Times,” and author of “Are Men Necessary?” and “Bushworld” joined ‘Countdown’ on Thursday to explain why she feels Oprah’s only correct option now is to remove her endorsement, figuratively and literally, from Frey's book and comment on the growing struggle over spying for the Bush Administration.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, ‘COUNTDOWN’:  There are two stories here.  First, the tabloidy one, the book still atop the “New York Times” list of best-selling paperback nonfiction, endorsed by the broadcaster still atop the country's list of television nonfiction, turns out to be plenty fiction.

Second, the bigger-picture story.  How it fits into what humorist Stephen Colbert has defined as “truthiness” in American society.

Is this the way to apologize for something in public, take a big club, beat up the person you trusted, and then hit yourself in the head a couple of times as well?

MAUREEN DOWD, COLUMNIST, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  Well, it was interesting, because I was walking through the “New York Times” newsroom, and I have never seen the “Times” newsroom so riveted.  Every single reporter was watching a television set.  And it was just amazing.  You know, it made you shiver, because it was the ultimate trip to the principal's office.

And you momentarily felt sorry for Frey until you realized he's still going to be raking in money, because people won't care, they'll still buy the book.  But it was fantastic to see Oprah stand up for truth, as opposed to truthiness.

OLBERMANN:  But there is practical elements to this.  Oprah's endorsement is still on the book, the book is still at the top of the nonfiction list of that very newspaper that you mentioned, the one for which you write.  What about those things?

DOWD:  Well, I think that we should not put books where the author has admitted that some of it is fiction on the nonfiction list.  We should have a separate list for those books, maybe spurious nonfiction, spurless nonfiction, make a new category.

OLBERMANN:  What exactly does Oprah need to be doing besides making another high-rated television show out of it today?

DOWD:  Yes, no, well, I said she should kick his bony, lying, nonfiction butt off of the Kingdom of Oprah.  She should take that endorsement off of the book, of course.

OLBERMANN:  And what happens to the two careers here?  What happens now to Oprah Winfrey's credibility?  What happens to what's left of James Frey's credibility?

DOWD:  Well, Oprah Winfrey, who I think probably already had more credibility than the president, her credibility goes up, because unlike the president, she's willing to admit that, you know, she made a mistake, and face up to it.  And she's the man.

And Frey will do fine, because I don't think anyone cares, including, you know, his publisher, whether it's truth or fiction.

OLBERMANN:  Does this, in fact, matter to us as people, as a society? 

And why would it, if it does?

DOWD:  Well, that's why, you know, Oprah said she was inspired to do this by the brilliant essay of our brilliant book critic, Michiko Kakutanu, who said this was really important, because it is about whether our society values truth or not.

And I think that, of course, that the government has been undermining truth for five years.  So, you know, publishing, journalism, government, they have all been involved in this, you know, lack of respect for truth.  So I think it was a big moment and a good moment for that.

OLBERMANN:  We're not done with the topic of the book.  Seth Mnookin of “Vanity Fair” coming up on the impact of James Frey's deceit on those trying to break addictions.

But Maureen, right now, we want to look at a live televised event today in which nothing close to an apology was even hinted at.  So if you would stand by for a second, we'll get your reaction to this.

But let me first give the headline, the president unexpectedly stepping up to the White House press room podium today in day four of the high-intensity push to tamp down the controversy over the warrantless domestic spying, or, as the White House calls it, the international spying, on phone calls and e-mails that either began or finished inside this country.

The program is legal, the president said.  It's designed to protect civil liberties, and it's not domestic—not, not, not.

The president will never know that he writes part of my newscast for me every night.  But right there, it sounded as if the burden of his version of what the definition of “is” is got to be too much for him today, and he was just ready to punt on that one.

DOWD:  Well, it's simply already been proven not to be true.  The “Times” did a fantastic story, where they interviewed, you know, FBI agents involved in the case.  And already there have been a lot of domestic, domestic calls and innocent Americans swept up.

And, you know, I know a reporter who the FBI showed up at his door, and went in to interview his son, and it turned out that, in connection with his work, he had called Al Jazeera headquarters in Qatar.  And he was being swept up.  And the FBI didn't even know that the name of the person they were looking for was an official of Al Jazeera.

So you're dealing with the FBI and CIA, who have bumbled so badly in everything in the last six years.  We want to give them more unlimited powers?  I don't think so.

OLBERMANN:  On several occasions in the last few years, this White House has seemingly defied this idea that a lot of societies have been held together by, that no man can hold back the tide.  They're going to stand there, they're going to try to do exactly that.

If it doesn't really work, they'll say, Well, yes, it did work, you're wrong.  And if you question them about that, they'll get you in a semantical discussion.  Is not the whole idea of that—this definition, international versus domestic, is this not by itself a red herring?  I mean, you could call it intergalactic spying, and the issue is the legality, not the name, right?

DOWD:  Don't give Cheney and Rummy ideas.  They're going to be doing intergalactic spying.

It's all a red herring.  What this is about, Dick Cheney wants to throw off all of these rules.  He wants to go to war without permission, he wants to torture without permission, he wants to snoop without permission, because he and Rummy were Ford officials at a time when presidential power shrank.  They felt emasculated.  They did not like it.  They stewed about it for 30 years.

Now they are trying to do everything they can to expand presidential power.  So they're doing exactly what they want to.

OLBERMANN:  Who has enabled this?  I mean, in a perverse way, is it almost necessary to say that Bill Clinton paved the way for George Bush to conduct a kind of fingers-in-his-ears, shout La-la-la-la-la, presidency?

DOWD:  No, they're two entirely different things, because when Bill Clinton would deceive, he would throw in a semantic clue that let you know he was deceiving.  “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” we knew what he meant by that.  You know, I didn't break the laws of this country.

So it was sort of poignant and endearing.  He would let you know he was lying, and then the right wing would come down so hard on him and over punish him.

And in the case of Bush, he's just in a completely different reality.  You know, they call us the reality-based community, and they create their own reality.  And so Bush is just in a bubble.  And when you're in the bubble, you don't know you're in the bubble.

OLBERMANN:  If you would be so kind, wrap this up, tie this story of Mr. Bush's current conundrum with the Oprah Winfrey-James Frey thing.  Is there something the president could learn from Ms. Winfrey, or even from James Frey?

DOWD:  Well, Tom Skokin did a brilliant piece in “The New York Observer” where he said when Oprah was clinging to supporting Frey, she was doing it for the reason of emotional truth, that millions of people could be helped by his story of redemption.  And Bush, with Iraq, said that even if it turned out not to be true, the reasons we went to war, it was right, because millions of Iraqis would be liberated.

But you cannot, you know, do things that start with a lie.  And they just lead to trouble down the road.

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