The need to be right

Everybody seems to be writing about Oprah today. And why not? Her apology to viewers for foisting James Frey and his blatantly false “autobiography” on the public through her book club — and then defending the guy when the truth came out — was a remarkable piece of television. This is from today’s Media Notes by Howard Kurtz:

Two weeks after standing by James Frey’s falsified tale of crime and drugs, the talk-show queen reversed herself following a spate of newspaper editorials and columns assailing her credibility.

“I made a mistake and I left the impression that the truth does not matter and I am deeply sorry about that,” Winfrey told viewers of her Chicago-based show. “That is not what I believe.” She said she was “really embarrassed,” adding, “To everyone who has challenged me on this issue of truth, you are absolutely right.”

Frey, after an early series of maddeningly vague comments about “embellishments” and the subjectivity of memoirs, acknowledged yesterday for the first time that, in writing “A Million Little Pieces,” he systematically lied.

While she’s getting a lot of ink and bytes for it today, I want to talk about the power of an apology, because, well, we hear so few of them in this day and age. Now that she has admitted she was wrong, people will stop challenging her credibility, and, in truth, they’ll actually grant her more credibility because of the admission. This is not common in our culture, especially for highly visible people like Oprah, because our culture rewards being right.

In fact, being right is more than just some promotional hype; in our litigious society, being wrong carries a very real price tag. Just wait. Somebody will sue Oprah for suffering caused by reading this silly book. She’ll settle, because it’ll be cheaper that going to court. And another attorney will suck some blood money from the deep pockets of somebody else, simply because they can. (Rant: when will we learn that these so-called deep pockets inevitably turn out to be our own?)

But the need to be right is one of the most prevalent in our culture, whether it’s a politician or the barber down the street. Being right reaches obsession levels in some people. Who hasn’t tried to argue with somebody who is always right? And if they’re right, you’re wrong — hell, everybody else is wrong.

This is a fruit of the worship of reason and the human mind, an offspring of the modernist culture that postmodernism is rejecting. At core, people know they’re not always right, and that means they know that nobody else is always right either. Institutional America, however, lives off the illusion of being right, and therein lies a significant conflict.

Acceptance that we’re often wrong is one of the core principles of transparency in media that so many of us covet as the standard of tomorrow. That’s because humility is the opposite of the “Voice of God” pedestal that the marketing of the contemporary press needs in order to continue the status quo.

To the postmodernist, however, the hypocrisy of such a position is an obvious reason to pursue other windows (or at least more windows) through which to view the world.

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