Consider the plight of the televised health professional.
There was a time when all it took was the right couple of letters in front of your name and the divine blessing of Oprah Winfrey, daytime TV’s resplendent queen, and you could find yourself hosting a hit television show. With just those advantages secured, both Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Phil McGraw landed themselves eponymous programs with which to dole out their wisdom to audiences at home.
Alas, the bloom has begun to come quite noticeably off those particular roses. And it may be time to ponder whether or not these shows, each proudly affixed with “Dr.” right in their titles, have exploited their stars’ professional credentials well past their sell-by dates.
For Dr. Oz, it’s been a hairy couple of weeks. His current woes started with a much-ballyhooed letter from ten physicians calling on the dean of Columbia University’s medical school to boot Dr. Oz from the faculty there. Citing his “egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments,” among other malefactions, the authors deem his presence at such a prestigious institution “unacceptable.”
This comes the year after Dr. Oz was hauled before a Senate hearing to explain why he frequently touted worthless “miracle” weight-loss supplements. (I should probably take this opportunity to admit that I did not give Sen. Claire McCaskill nearly enough credit when I wrote about it at the time. She gave him far more of a grilling than I thought she would.) Then as now, he was forced to spin the nonsense he spouted as some kind of feel-good self-help mumbo jumbo rather than actual medical opinion.
As it happens, I share the skepticism of some about the motives of those ten physicians, who are enjoying far more celebrity now than they likely ever have before, and who couldn’t possibly have expected an Ivy League medical school to give a tenured department vice chair the heave-ho just because they wrote a letter. Dr. Oz has gone on the offensive about the possible conflicts of interest behind the letter’s writing, and it’s within his rights to question the motives of his critics.
But whatever the academic upshot to this new kerfuffle, it’s forced Dr. Oz to do some damage control. And I am not buying what he’s selling.
In an interview with NBC, Dr. Oz strains credulity to the breaking point by maintaining that his is not a “medical show” and that in the logo the “OZ” is really big but the “Dr.” is eensy-weensy so as to make that distinction clear. If anyone believes that Dr. Oz did not leverage his credentials as a selling point for his program, or that his viewers do not tune in in large part because of the legitimacy those credentials presumably give his daily pronouncements, then please contact me about an exciting purchase opportunity for a bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
But it’s within that same interview that Dr. Oz accidentally tells a little bit of truth.
“The purpose is not to throw at you the biggest articles published by doctors that week. Frankly it’s not very much fun to listen to [those], either,” he tells NBC. And he’s right.
Speaking as someone who regularly scours various medical news services for topics that may be of interest to a general audience, the vast majority comprise items that I find fascinating or useful as a physician, but would be crushingly dull to pretty much everyone else. Real, actual medical science is often made up of studies that add little bits to the accumulated body of knowledge already out there, or explore some small treatment effect. The bigger and splashier the supposed finding, the more rigorous the study must be to justify it. Most of the big claims turn out to be baseless garbage.
What you don’t do is just report the garbage anyway. (Or, at least, I sure as hell try not to.) You don’t promulgate nonsense you know to be based on shoddy science. You don’t decide that the demand for ratings trumps your obligation to properly inform your audience.
I understand that trying to keep the topics limited to those that truly withstand scientific scrutiny would mean The Dr. Oz Show would both struggle to find enough material to fill their airtime, and would probably bore the dickens out of its audience. So perhaps it’s time they drop the “Dr.” bit entirely, rechristen the program “Mehmet,” and have him join all the other daytime entertainers crowding the airwaves with general interest content. It would be a lot more intellectually honest.
But one thing I’ll say for Dr. Oz: at least he’s not Dr. Phil.
Another Oprah protégé, Dr. Phil McGraw has used his show to become America’s confrontational truth-spewer-in-chief. Heavily reliant on the questionably effective tactic of “intervention” with his guests, Dr. Phil uses his PhD to gussy up what is really just one more salacious offering wherein people expose their flaws and bad decisions for the entertainment of the audience.
Dr. Phil’s unseemly mélange of exploitation, celebrity parasitism and credential mining goes back years, at least until 2008 when he went to visit a hospitalized Britney Spears in the midst of her high-profile troubles then issued a statement about it, much to her parents’ dismay. A couple of years later, after having a pair of serial shoplifters on his program ostensibly for help but mainly just to get them to dish about their deeds, the judge who presided over their subsequent sentencing called him a “charlatan” and a “terrible, terrible man.”
Apparently having learned nothing from the Spears fiasco, Dr. Phil has more recently decided to do a deep dive into the fine art of filming minor celebrities when they’re at their emotional nadir. Despite being visibly inebriated and in absolutely no condition to discuss his mental health
on camera, Nick Gordon, the boyfriend of Whitney Houston’s comatose daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown, was subjected to one of Dr. Phil’s famous “interventions,” the clinical benefit of which was highly suspect. And following the interview, he took it upon himself to gab to the gossip program Entertainment Tonight about how it went, sharing salacious, highly personal details with ET’s voracious audience.
“He'd go from being able to talk like we’re talking now to just all of a sudden collapsing and wailing,” Dr. Phil told ET. “And then he would pull out his phone and turn on a Whitney song and just start crying.”
In a few days, another episode is set to air in which he browbeats troubled Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Kim Richards about her recent arrest for public drunkenness until she runs off in tears, ending the interview.
Do these people need the involvement of trained professionals to deal honestly with their problems? Quite possibly. Does being confronted with the ramifications of their bad decisions have value for people with various mental health or substance abuse problems? Often it does. Is Dr. Phil actually accomplishing anything of benefit for his hapless subjects when he milks their travails for ratings? Not even slightly.
Call this sort of celebrity bottom-feeding what you like, but please let’s not call it therapeutic. It’s a crass pantomime of psychology, no matter what Dr. Phil’s degree. He makes Dr. Joyce Brothers look like Carl Jung by comparison.
Like Dr. Oz, if Dr. Phil wants to promote what his show is really about, he can jettison the “Dr.” jive, and take his place openly alongside Maury and Jerry and Montel. They all peddle the same prurient garbage, and he may as well be plain about it. I won’t tune in, but at least I won’t consider him a professional embarrassment. Junk doesn’t turn into worthwhile viewing just because you wrap a diploma around it, and it’s time Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil stopped pretending otherwise.