Oprah Winfrey helped create “Dr. Oz”—the TV character played by Mehmet Oz, who is now running as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania—but she’s no longer interested in promoting his brand.
The superstar talk show host and media mogul gave a last minute endorsement to Oz’s opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, after a year of sitting on the sidelines and not weighing in on her longtime business associate’s campaign.
To be sure, Oprah’s always been quite open about the fact that she’s a Democrat—and her early endorsement of fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama was a huge factor in building the campaign war chest he needed to improbably win the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton in 2008.
And Democrats who are desperate to win this nail-biter of a high-stakes race are surely happy to take whatever crumbs “America’s talk show host” drops, but it might be too little and too late. Indeed, it looks more like she’s covering her ass than covering herself in glory.
Let’s start with the fact that there is arguably no person on the planet more responsible for Oz’s celebrity than Oprah, who made him a regular guest, promoted his books, and at least tacitly endorsed some of his questionable medical advice. And that’s before he became the host of his own program, which lasted for 13 years. All told, for the better part of two decades Dr. Oz was a fixture on daytime TV, treated as both a medical expert and a sort of touchy-feely motivational star. That kind of fluffy exposure is a godsend for anyone hoping to break into politics—just ask Donald Trump (who almost surely would not have become president were it not for the image rehabilitation he received while playing the fictional character of a competent businessman on NBC’s The Apprentice).
From NBC to Oprah to Elon to Kanye, we are witnessing a trend of wealthy and elite brands contributing (intentionally or not) to the rise of illiberalism. In the case of NBC and Oprah, we have seen a willingness of powerful and respected mainstream brands to platform individuals who later use that privilege as a springboard to political power. They built this. It’s not like NBC didn’t know who Trump was when they hired him. And if Oprah was bamboozled by Oz—well, that’s on her.
People make mistakes, but Oprah should have had buyer’s remorse long before now. As The Washington Post reported, “Oz provided a platform for potentially dangerous products and fringe viewpoints, aimed at millions of viewers, according to medical experts, public health organizations and federal health guidance. Among the treatments that Oz promoted were HCG, garcinia cambogia—an herbal weight-loss product the FDA has said can cause liver damage—and selenium—a trace mineral needed for normal body functioning—for cancer prevention.”
Yet Oprah, as far as I know, did not speak out against Oz when he was pushing these quack remedies, nor did she speak out against his political qualifications when he announced he was running for office.
Back in April, Dr. Daniel Summers, a pediatrician and writer, told The Daily Beast: “Were it not for Oprah, Oz would have played out his career as an eminent and widely respected cardiothoracic surgeon, and everyone would have been better off,” he said. “His celebrity, and thus his candidacy, stems directly from her own fame and her promotion of him.”
It is “long past time for [Oprah] to acknowledge her role in making [Oz] what he is, and make some attempt to stop the damage he is causing by repudiating him,” Summers continued.
So why did Oprah wait so long if she was going to so emphatically endorse Fetterman? We can only speculate.
Last Christmas, Oz reportedly asked Oprah not to get involved. “I asked her to stay out. Don’t support me because if you get involved in any way, you’ll get hurt and I don’t want my friends hurt,” Oz said.
The framing makes it sound like Oz was protecting his friend—who wanted to endorse Oz—from criticism. But the truth could be that Oz was instead asking the massively-influential Oprah to remain neutral (despite her Democratic loyalties) so as to not sabotage his chances.
Whatever the cause, Oprah kept her powder dry until Thursday night. “I will tell you all this, if I lived in Pennsylvania, I would have already cast my vote for John Fetterman for many reasons,” she said.
So what changed? According to Politico, Fetterman has been “trying to nab Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement for months.” The outlet also reports that Fetterman’s team, as well as “[c]elebrities and prominent Democrats who support Fetterman,” reached out to Oprah on behalf of the candidate.
Perhaps Oprah was hoping that Fetterman wouldn’t need her support. But in recent weeks, Oz has surged, and Fetterman’s disastrous debate performance on Oct. 25 made it clear that he would not be coasting to victory.
Still, this race has been tight for weeks now, and the debate was a week-and-a-half ago. Pennsylvanians are already voting early (indeed, Oprah says in her statement she would already have voted for Fetterman). If Oprah wanted her endorsement to have maximum impact, she waited far too long. This is not to say that Oz is destined to win, just that Oprah’s endorsement is past the point it would matter the way a well-timed endorsement should.
I am reminded of the GOP gubernatorial primary in Arizona. When it became clear that the MAGA candidate, Kari Lake, had a real shot to win, former Vice President Mike Pence and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey suddenly weighed-in and endorsed her more mainstream Republican opponent. As I wrote at the time, “the anti-Lake forces might have waited too long.” And they did.
Perhaps Oprah began fearing she would be blamed if Republicans win Pennsylvania and (with it) the U.S. Senate, and rushed to endorse Fetterman as a way to hedge her bets. This kind of endorsement checks a box and keeps Oprah’s hands clean.
But if she wanted her endorsement to actually matter, she should have been the brave and bold influencer that her brand says she is.
From Trump to Lake, one thing we’ve learned is this: By the time you realize you need to hit the panic button and call in the cavalry, it’s already too late. It’s over.