Column: Will President Oprah bring her quacks with her to the White House?
Oprah Winfrey’s heartfelt, uplifting speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday inspired the most natural response imaginable in our crippled political world: She should run for President.
The most common sentiment resembled this tweet from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco): “Run, Oprah, run! An army of women would fight for you.”
There were a few naysayers, including The Times Editorial Board, which asked of the idea of nominating a television celebrity for the highest office of the land: “Have we learned nothing?” The editorialists asked, “What is there to suggest that she is any better prepared than Trump was to work productively with Congress or tackle international trade negotiations, the North Korean nuclear threat or the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict?”
I can’t figure this out, Dr. Oz. ... I don’t get why you need to say this stuff because you know it’s not true.
Rep. Claire McCaskill grills Oprah protege Mehmet Oz over quack medical claims
Fair point, but we have another concern. It’s about Winfrey’s record of promoting medical quackery on her television show and other media.
In her speech, Winfrey spoke out for “all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed, bills to pay and dreams to pursue. … Domestic workers. And farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants, and they’re in academia, and engineering, and medicine and science ...”
But she hasn’t served them — or anyone — well by giving a platform to some truly noisome medical claims. We’ve covered some of these issues in the past. Over at Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilley has collected a rogue’s gallery. Put together, the promotion of some of these claims and their spokespersons should raise questions about Winfrey’s judgment.
Let’s start with arguably her biggest spinoff star, Dr. Mehmet Oz. Winfrey launched Dr. Oz as a guest on her show, then helped him launch his own daytime program, which remains enormously popular. But it’s been a haven for exaggerated and scientifically unsupported — and unsupportable — medical claims. We’ve complimented Oz for speaking out against bogus stem-cell clinics, but that doesn’t outweigh his other activities.
“If you’re trying to sell a supplement, yet you don’t have actual scientific evidence to back up your claims, ‘The Dr. Oz Show’ is your ticket to recognition and sales,” crusading pharmacist Scott Gavura wrote in 2015.
One notable and well-documented case involved green coffee bean extract, which Oz promoted as a weight-loss nostrum in 2012 with the words, “You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight-loss cure for every body type.”
The claim was based on a manufacturer’s study that was later retracted and resulted in the company’s $3.5-million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC noted at the time that “the study was so hopelessly flawed that no reliable conclusions could be drawn from it.” The agency added, “The flawed study, which purported to show that the product causes ‘substantial weight and fat loss,’ was later touted on ‘The Dr. Oz Show.’ ”
“I can’t figure this out, Dr. Oz,” said Rep. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “You are obviously very bright. You have been trained in science-based medicine.” She cited the green coffee claim and two others, and asked, “I don’t get why you need to say this stuff because you know it’s not true,” she added. “So why, when you have this amazing megaphone, do you cheapen your show like that?”
“My job is to be a cheerleader for the audience,” he explained. “When they don’t think they have hope, I want to look everywhere … for any evidence that might be supportive to them.”
Later that year, a team of Canadian researchers painstakingly examined 40 episodes of Oz’s show and evaluated every medical recommendation. For more than half, there was no scientific support, and for 15%, the scientific record actually contradicted the recommendation.
Then there’s Jenny McCarthy, the former Playboy model and TV starlet who received priceless time on Oprah’s daytime TV show to promote her conviction that childhood vaccines cause autism. This is an assertion that not only has been conclusively debunked, but shown to be the product of fraud.
In 2007, McCarthy was invited onto Winfrey’s show to repeat the claim that the MMR vaccine had caused her son Evan’s autism. Winfrey read a statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but gave it a skeptical spin, according to a transcript published by vaccine expert Paul Offit: “ ‘We simply don’t know [Oprah paused for several seconds] what causes most cases of autism. … The vast majority of science to date does not support the association.”
Another Winfrey-made star is “Dr. Phil” McGraw, a one-time psychologist with another popular daytime TV show. Just last month, the McGraw show’s management of substance abuse patients featured on the air came under scrutiny by the Boston Globe and Stat News, which said some guests were subjected to dangerous detox procedures and in one case, permitted to seek drugs on the street, with the cameras rolling. The investigation quoted Dr. Jeff Sugar, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at USC, calling such treatment “a callous and inexcusable exploitation.” The program denies the accounts.
About a decade ago, McGraw got involved in hawking a diet nostrum. In 2006, he settled a lawsuit over the products for $10.5 million, without admitting or denying wrongdoing. Insurance would cover the expense, according to the plaintiffs’ attorney.
Winfrey has paraded others like them before the fans, including Suzanne Somers, who came on her show in 2009 to promote a stay-young regime of estrogen creams and vitamins and other pills — up to 60 a day. “Many people write Suzanne off as a quackadoo,” Winfrey told her audience. “But she just might be a pioneer.” She acknowledged that Somers’ regimen had been abominated by medical experts, some of whom were invited to express their criticisms on the program. But Winfrey put her thumb on the scale by treating Somers as a self-empowering individual. “Suzanne swears by bioidenticals and refuses to keep quiet,” she said. “She’ll take on anyone, including any doctor who questions her.”
Winfrey has ridden television’s tendency to take everyone at his or her own level of self-esteem to fame, wealth and indescribable influence. Sunday’s Golden Globes showed her using her vast credibility to positive use. But the record hasn’t always been so praiseworthy. Which side of her would show up in the White House?