Never get into a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel, and—here’s a useful 21st-century corollary—never attack a guy who hosts his own popular weekday television show.
Celebrity cardiothoracic surgeon Mehmet Oz—he of the healthily-rated Dr. Oz program that is syndicated nationally by Sony Pictures Television—confirmed the accuracy of the latter maxim on his Thursday installment.
For the first 30 minutes of his hour-long show—which celebrates its 1,000th episode on May 7—Oz took a chainsaw rather than a scalpel (metaphorically speaking) to his 10 fellow physicians who signed an open letter demanding his dismissal from the Columbia University Medical School faculty.
“The 10 doctors who attacked me got what they intended—sensational headlines and sound bites,” the chiseled, imperially slim Oz said straight to camera, looking earnest and aggrieved and sporting a gray suit and pink open-necked shirt rather than the form-fitting blue surgical scrubs he often dons on the show.
Behind him—in the Dr. Oz studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where the episode was taped on Tuesday—was a huge wall of unflattering, blown-up photos of eight of the offending doctors (the other two, whose photos were apparently unavailable, were depicted by Batman-style question marks), in a sinister arrangement that reminded me (I’m sure this was entirely accidental) of that ubiquitous graphic of the 9/11 hijackers.
“I’ve long believed that doctors should never fight their battles, or each other, in public,” Oz continued. “But now I believe I must.”
Twenty minutes later, after the good doctor was finished pointing out, via a pre-taped feature piece, that one of the letter-signers, Dr. Gilbert Ross, is a convicted felon who spent time behind bars, and another, Dr. Henry I. Miller, is a shill for the tobacco, pesticide, and genetically modified food industries, among other beauts on the signers’ resumes, the only thing left to do was to shoot the wounded—after anesthetizing them, of course.
“It’s ironic that I’m being accused of conflict of interests by these doctors,” Oz declared, “when some of them…have their own conflicts of interest.”
After Oz soaked up raucous applause and cheers from his largely female studio audience, the second half of the show had him hugging and dancing with an elderly audience member, joking with another about the joys of geriatric sex, and lest anyone dare call him a quack, starring in a video in which he successfully replaced a faulty heart valve of an 87-year-old woman on the operating table.
The controversy has been festering since last Thursday when Dr. Miller, the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at the Hoover Institution, a right-leaning think tank based on the Stanford University campus, released a letter calling for Oz to be fired.
It was addressed to Dr. Lee Goldman, Columbia University’s dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences, where the 54-year-old Oz has taught for two decades.
“We are surprised and dismayed that Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons would permit Dr. Mehmet Oz to occupy a faculty appointment, let alone a senior administrative position in the Department of Surgery,” Miller wrote, accusing Oz of “disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine,” and “egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments [for] personal financial gain,” among other crimes.
“Whatever the nature of his pathology,” Miller went on, “members of the public are being misled and endangered, which makes Dr. Oz’s presence on the faculty of a prestigious medical institution unacceptable.”
Although Columbia immediately defended Oz and politely told Miller & Co. to stuff it, the letter was catnip for the media—gracing tabloids and TV shows—while the Huffington Post ran Oz’s photo under the exhortation, “RESIGN.”
In a June 2014 congressional hearing, Oz took a beating from Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who scolded him for hyping dubious weight-loss products such as green coffee extract and raspberry ketone.
“I don’t get why you need to say this stuff because you know it’s not true,” she lectured Oz as he squirmed in the witness chair. “Why would you cheapen your show by saying things like that?”
While claiming he believed the products were effective in many cases, Oz conceded that maybe his language had been over the top—“flowery” and “incendiary.”
But on Thursday, Oz vehemently denied to his viewers that he has ever promoted treatments and cures for personal financial gain—“something I tell you every day on this program I never do.”
Guessing that the nasty letter was prompted by the signers’ financial relationships with the genetically modified food industry—whose products are known as “GMOs” (for “organism”)—Oz added: “I have never judged GMO foods, but just like 64 countries around the world I support GMO labeling so you can decide on the foods for your family.”
Their specific motivation, Oz suggested, was his ardent support for GMO labeling and the industry’s support for federal legislation, recently introduced by Republican Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas, that would outlaw such labeling on the federal level and also rescind state labeling regulations.
Oz was joined on the show by sympathetic guests who variously referred to the letter-signers as “liars” and “anti-American.”
Miller didn’t respond to messages left on his home and offices phones, and Gilbert Ross—who runs the industry-backed American Council on Science and Health—said in a brief phone conversation before the show aired that Oz’s retaliatory attack would be personal because he couldn’t defend the substance.
“It’s sometimes referred to as ad hominem,” said Ross, who lost his medical license in July 1995 (though it was reinstated in 2004), and served 14 months of a 46-month federal prison sentence on a Medicaid fraud conviction.
In a press release issued after Thursday’s show, Ross opined: “Instead of addressing the primary concern—that he often dispenses questionable medical advice—Dr. Oz has chosen to evade responsibility on this topic by once again changing the subject.”
Ross added, “He’s personally attacking his critics, while at the same time claiming they are trying to silence him. Let’s be clear: No one is looking to deny Dr. Oz his right to free speech. All the public deserves is that when he speaks, he sticks to offering sound medical advice that helps his viewers, rather than causing them harm.”
Ross’s spokesman said he was unavailable for comment Thursday afternoon because he was on his way to an interview at CNN.