Is Oprah's Golden Touch Tarnished?

Yet another memoir endorsed by Oprah Winfrey is revealed as a hoax.

December 29, 2008, 3:09 PM

Dec. 30, 2008 — -- Unfortunately for Oprah Winfrey, some stories really are too good to be true.

Herman Rosenblat's memoir, "Angel at the Fence," deemed by Winfrey as "the single greatest love story" she's ever featured on her show, may now be coined by some as the single phoniest love story, after the author admitted he fabricated the story of how he and his wife met at a Nazi concentration camp.

They did not, as Rosenblat falsely wrote in the book, meet at a concentration camp during World War II, where Rosenblat claimed his wife had thrown him apples and bread over the barbed-wire fence that separated them.

In reality, Rosenblat and his wife, Roma, were set up on a blind date in New York years after the war was over.

Ken Rosenblat, Rosenblat's son, knew for years of the hoax and expressed outrage today over his father's lie. He told the New York Post, "I didn't agree with it. I didn't want anything to do with it. I tried to just stay away from it."

Rosenblat's bogus autobiography is one of several memoirs that have been lauded by Winfrey and then later revealed to be frauds -- including James Frey's best-selling "A Million Little Pieces" and Margaret Seltzer's "Love and Consequences" -- consequently calling into question how much weight Winfrey's future book endorsements will carry.

Sara Nelson, the editor in chief of trade magazine Publishers Weekly, told that she wouldn't be surprised if Winfrey, in response to the recent hoaxes, is more cautious in the future about what books she talks about on her show.

"This is embarrassing for [Winfrey] and I'm sure she's not happy about it," said Nelson. "I think she'll be more careful about what she promotes."

Will Winfrey's Book Recommendations Go Unnoticed?

But even after endorsing three supposed memoirs that turned out to be more fiction than fact, Nelson doesn't think Winfrey's credibility will suffer.

"She was saved the embarrassment with [Rosenblat's book] in that it didn't come out with her book club sticker printed on the cover," Nelson said.

Frey's book was published in 2006 with Winfrey's highly-recognizable emblem on the book jacket and had garnered far more notoriety than Rosenblat's book. During the fallout from Frey's book, Winfrey appeared on her show as a victim, said Nelson, arguing that she had relied on the publishers to check its accuracy and that she, like her viewers, had been taken for a ride.

"I think Winfrey has successfully positioned herself to be viewed as an 'every reader' who is just as susceptible at being pulled into a hoax as everyone else," Nelson said. "She has an awful lot of credibility and, as usual, she'll escape this pretty much unscathed."

Representatives for Winfrey, citing a holiday break, were unavailable to comment about the recent revelations regarding Rosenblat's book.

Peter Gutierrez, a publishing consultant and non-fiction author, said that if Winfrey feels any backlash at all, it won't last long.

"While being duped twice in high-profile ways may make her stock take a temporary tumble, it could actually provide a way for her to play the crusader or victim role vis-à-vis the 'greedy' and 'unscrupulous' publishers and authors," Gutierrez said.

"In the long run, will her 'hit-maker' status suffer?" he wondered. "I think it depends a lot on market share -- who else can steal the spotlight in terms of being a taste-maker with her numbers and demographics who hasn't suffered the public setbacks Oprah has in the last two years?

"Until that media figure emerges in a clear way, she will continue to stand out in many quarters as the only game in town," he said.

But no matter what the repercussions for the talk show queen are, the appearance of yet another falsified memoir has publishing insiders wondering about the future of the memoir and what, if anything, can be done to ensure that hundreds of thousands of readers, editors, publishers, filmmakers and even Winfrey herself, don't get duped again.

Do Publishers Fact Check Memoirs?

Contrary to what some might expect, Nelsen said that fact-checking memoirs for accuracy is not common practice in the publishing industry.

"Historically, books are not so much fact-checked as they are run by lawyers for libel," Nelson said. "So, specific facts don't necessarily get checked.

"What's surprising about [Rosenblat's book] is that, in light of the books that have come out recently that were hoaxes you'd think that people would be paying a little bit closer attention," she said.

But hiring a staff of fact checkers, said Nelson, has never happened in publishing houses; nor is it likely to -- especially during a time when the industry, like many others, is suffering in the poor economy.

"There's not enough manpower to check these books and at no point will there be a battalion of fact checkers hired," she said. "It's wildly expensive."

How Rosenblat's memoir was checked is not known; calls made to the publisher, Berkley Books, were not immediately returned.

Gutierrez said that reference books and how-to guides are really the only books that get heavily scrutinized by fact checkers.

And with memoirs, Gutierrez added, fact-checking would hardly help prove that the way an author remembers his life is actually the way it unfolded in reality.

"No amount of fact-checking can bolster how truthful a story is," Gutierrez said. "Fact-checking just isn't set up to check how accurately a person recalls certain events."

But even without a staff dedicated to ensuring the memoir was not a fraud, Nelson says the manuscript had to have gone through the hands of at least a dozen editors and assistants before it was approved for publishing.

"A lot of people could have stopped it from being published," Nelson said.

Neither Nelson or Gutierrez are certain how to prevent future falsified memoirs from getting published, but both say more emphasis must be put on the importance of telling the truth.

Gutierrez said that while he'd hate to see stringent protocols established at publishing houses that would discourage others from writing memoirs, he does think that the importance of telling the truth should be emphasized throughout the publishing process.

"It's not enough that the author seems nice or that they have a compelling story -- this type of vetting obviously isn't working," Gutierrez said. "The importance of truth-telling needs to be in the foreground of contracts between authors and publishers."

Nelson suggests that publishers say that the book was "adapted from a true story" or "based on a true story" to avoid future stories from being erroneously labeled as memoirs.

"It hurts the industry if people feel betrayed by the books that they buy," Nelson said.

"But publishers are always anxious to produce best-sellers and I think more care needs to be taken in every step of the publishing process," she said. "It would behoove publishers to be less in a rush to sign the next best thing."

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