Editors at MSNBC.com removed and retracted a story about James Frey last Thursday afternoon after receiving some angry phone calls from members of Mr. Frey’s publicity team. In the story “Frey Still Having Trouble Keeping Facts Straight,” which ran in the Scoop gossip column, reporter Courtney Hazlett suggested that Mr. Frey, the disgraced memoirist whose debut novel will be published by HarperCollins next Tuesday, had been caught in a fresh tangle of lies.
First, Ms. Hazlett questioned a story about meeting Norman Mailer that Mr. Frey had told a Vanity Fair reporter who was profiling him. Second, she suggested that Mr. Frey’s novel contained a description of a fictional celebrity blogger that had been “based on a cobbling of Perez Hilton’s Wikipedia page, and a Rolling Stone piece.” And third, she said that Mr. Frey had also lied to the Vanity Fair reporter about showing a friend a prepublication copy of the Smoking Gun report that ultimately brought him down. (The editor of the Smoking Gun told Ms. Hazlett on the record that he had never sent Mr. Frey or anyone else an advance copy of the article.)
If her hunches had been right, Ms. Hazlett would have had a huge story—especially because the Vanity Fair piece, which offered an unequivocally positive take on Mr. Frey, had come out just a few days earlier. Readers still angry with Mr. Frey wanted some justice, and Ms. Hazlett was apparently eager to provide them with some ammunition.
But the story about the Smoking Gun documents, while in fact inaccurate, had come not from Mr. Frey at all, but from his friend who has since said that he gave the VF reporter bad information by accident. And the supposedly “troubling similarities” between Mr. Frey’s work and the “previously published” materials on Perez Hilton were … not actually troubling or meaningful. As for Mr. Frey’s conversations with Mailer, the only reason Ms. Hazlett seems to have had for suggesting they never happened was that Mailer had died a month before the VF interview took place, thus precluding the magazine’s fact-checkers from confirming the story with him directly.
For Mr. Frey’s supporters, the MSNBC item represented precisely the kind of sensational knee-jerk skepticism they had feared would dog the author’s comeback attempt. Mr. Frey’s agent, Eric Simonoff, wrote in an e-mail: “The irony is pretty thick: A writer is raked over the coals for lying, and forever after journalists can feel free to print whatever lies about him they choose to with utter impunity.”
The other people who have been managing Mr. Frey’s media image—namely, Tina Andreadis, his publicist at Harper, and Davidson Goldin, his media strategist—must have been just as furious as Mr. Simonoff.
“I was very upset, I’ll be honest with you,” Ms. Andreadis said. “The piece was riddled with inaccuracies. We did call them, and we were obviously not happy with it.”
At first, Ms. Andreadis succeeded only in getting the headline changed. But then, after several phone calls to Seattle-based entertainment editor Denise Hazlick and MSNBC.com’s president, Charlie Tillinghast, the piece disappeared without a trace. A vague note of “clarification” appeared on the Web site the next day.
Did Mr. Goldin’s affiliation with MSNBC, where he was editorial director before Mr. Frey hired him as a consultant earlier this year, help to get the article flushed from the site? Reached by phone Monday, he declined to say whether he had any hand in the conversations with MSNBC, or to explain his role on the Frey rehabilitation squad.