I view my weakness for Oprah Winfrey – which has been lifelong and surprisingly dedicated – akin to my fondness for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and 1980s Steve Guttenberg movies: inexplicable to the non-devoted and deeply, deeply American. I’ve loved Winfrey since I started watching her talkshow as a teenager. Her warmth and enthusiasm – by now so heavily parodied by Saturday Night Live and others – were downright entrancing to me when I was growing up in Britain in the 90s, where any display of emotion that wasn’t couched in irony or cynicism was derided as embarrassing.
To this day, Winfrey’s O magazine is still, with its wholesome good cheer, one of my favourite titles, and the fact that Winfrey puts herself on the cover every month like an overenthusiastic youth leader pleases me enormously. Winfrey has always known it is her imprimatur that gives her products both appeal and credibility.
The other side to this, though, is that, because of Winfrey’s own weakness for theories that veer towards the decidedly crackpot, her legacy has been undeniably tarnished. On the one hand she endorsed plenty of credible things in her heyday, from Barack Obama to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which became a bestseller after being featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2003, 51 years after it was published. (You just know Steinbeck was looking down from above and thinking, “Day-UM – if I’d lived for another 35 years I could have been on Oprah!”).
On the other, we have Winfrey to blame for the rise of the former actor Jenny McCarthy , who opined her theory that vaccinations cause autism in children on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2007 to disastrous effect. McCarthy has since been repeatedly cited as a factor in the return of diseases such as whooping cough in the US.
The past week has served up yet another reminder of Winfrey’s somewhat dismaying talent at promoting the decidedly unworthy. Dr Mehmet Oz, a Turkish-American heart surgeon, first appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2004 and quickly became, along with Phil McGraw (psychology), Rachael Ray (cookery) and Suze Orman (financial advice), part of Winfrey’s team of experts who regularly appeared on the show.
With his good looks and requisite regular-guy patter, Oz was a natural addition to Winfrey’s stable and, along with the others, became a celebrity in his own right. His TV show attracts millions of viewers, to say nothing of his magazine and website, and when Oz endorsed a nasal irrigation system on his show, sales allegedly rose by 12,000% . Winfrey herself described him as “America’s doctor”. If that really were true – and seeing as he probably is the most famous doctor in America, it probably is - it’s no surprise America ranks so poorly in world health indices.
Oz “ dispenses with facts he doesn’t find convenient ” and “ [manifests] an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain .” He is “ an old west travelling salesman ” and “ more like a Kardashian than a cardiothoracic surgeon ”. These are the words of just some of his critics, which includes many of his colleagues who argue that Oz’s endorsement under a medical banner of certain remedies, ranging from the pseudo-scientific (reiki) to the downright kooky (unproven weight loss supplements, which he discusses on his show using not exactly medical terms such as “miraculous” and “magical”) is immoral.
Truly, heaven forfend anyone should deny a man called Oz the right to bullshit the people
Last year, a wholly unrepentant Oz was summoned to a senate hearing to discuss his endorsement of the aforementioned magical weight loss beans . Although he did admit that there isn’t, literally, a miracle pill, despite his frequent claims to the contrary, he insisted that he gives his audience “hope”. The redoubtable Senator Claire McCaskill said: “[The science] is almost monolithic against you in terms of the efficacy of the three products you called miracles. If it’s something that gives people false hope, I just don’t understand why you have to go there.” But even if Senator McCaskill wasn’t buying Oz’s schtick, plenty others did and do.
Last week, a group of physicians wrote a letter to the dean of the faculties of health sciences and medicines at Columbia University, where Oz retains a faculty position, arguing that the university’s affiliation with a man they describe as “repeatedly showing disdain for evidence-based medicine” is “unacceptable”. Oz replied with an arrogance you might not expect from a man whose recommendations were recently denounced in the BMJ , which asserted that half either lacked scientific data or were contradicted by data.
But not to expect arrogant defiance from Oz is to not know the man. He argued that The Dr Oz Show is “not a medical show”: “We very purposely, on the logo, have ‘Oz’ as the middle, and the ‘Doctor’ is actually up in the little bar for a reason,” he explained in a TV interview. “I want folks to realise that I’m a doctor, and I’m coming into their lives to be supportive of them. But it’s not a medical show.”
In other words, he seems to be saying, people would be better off taking medical advice from Dr Pepper than from Dr Oz. He then added that any criticism of the scientifically proven crap he promotes on his show was tantamount to an infringement of the freedom of speech. As one headline put it , “Dr Oz will declare on hugely popular TV show that he’s being silenced.”
Somewhat astonishingly, Columbia has followed Oz’s lead on this and replied that it is “committed to the principle of academic freedom and to upholding faculty members’ freedom of expression.” Truly, heaven forfend anyone should deny a man called Oz the right to bullshit the people. Look how well it worked for Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion. Hilariously, David Lynch has since come to Oz’s defence , but, with all respect to Lynch as a director, anyone who takes his medical advice definitely needs to see a doctor.
Oz is a big boy, and all responsibility for his nonsense should be laid at his doorstep. But we Winfrey fans know all too well that she’s the one who let this genie out of the bottle. Oz has flown high on his own but he still has the stamp of Winfrey all over him, with his self-belief, self-marketing and, yes, endorsement of kookiness simply to cheer up his audience. He learned too well at the feet of his mistress.