Becoming a celebrity, a television star, or a media sensation can be addicting. When you have amassed a devoted audience or a following and burst on to the pop scene in a frenzy, there is an unquenchable thirst for adulation, a voracious appetite for more, and an obsessive need to be relevant. Popularity is addicting as a potent drug.
Oprah Winfrey plucked Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Phil McGraw from virtual obscurity, launching them into stardom by including their know-how in her daily, colossally popular talk show. After they too became household names, she set them both up with their own television shows, and in the process they would eventually become daily fixtures in households all over America, mini-Oprahs in their own right.
Oz and Phil became so popular that their expertise was sought out by cable and broadcast networks on a regular basis. They were the “go-to” experts when America — or celebrities — faced a health or psychological crisis. They were the credible sources that the news media turned to, primarily because so many of us trusted them or were indoctrinated on a daily basis with their diagnostic discourse.
When you are constantly sought out, when your daily ratings are impressive, when you promote your self-help tomes in packed bookstores all over the country, your ego becomes as big as your celebrity. It is tremendously difficult to sustain both your self-control and persona, and when the ship starts to sink or a bigger ship comes along, your professional craving for superstar survival can become career-threatening.
During this coronavirus crisis, America has witnessed and heard from,some of our nation’s leading epidemiologists and infectious disease physicians. Dr. Anthony Fauci was already renowned, but he is now arguably the most trusted medic the country has about COVID-19. Dr. Deborah Birx, with her signature colorful scarves, has also emerged as a sound voice.
Print and broadcast news outlets have been turning to legitimate — and pandemic-germane — doctors from esteemed universities and medical centers around the world to add thoughtful commentary about what the disease is all about, what we should expect, how it transmits, who is most susceptible, possible treatments and vaccines, and a litany of other issues surrounding this stalking virus.
So where does that leave “television” doctors, who normally filled those coveted media slots as authority spokespersons? Namely, where and how do Doctors Oz and Phil remain relevant in this era of medical emergency? For them, it meant going to the bottom rung of news channels and in the process getting caught in a downward swirl of metaphorical toilet talk, smashing their once-pristine personalities all in a frantic effort to stay relevant and important in the most consequential curative crisis of our time.
What else can be said about their less than star turns about COVID-19 on America’s least trusted network? It is common knowledge — almost a joke, really — among PR professionals that when you are pitching your client to major news outlets and are striking out, there’s always the last resort of getting them booked on the Fox News Channel because it would “take anything.” People who are in PR and have gone this route will understand this and chuckle.
In contrast, a well-read public wasn’t laughing at recent appearances on Fox by both Oz and Phil. Many were appalled. Few applauded.
First there was Dr. Oz, who told the immoral imbecile Sean Hannity that opening schools would be a good way to get America’s “mojo” back. He misspoke about a study that said letting kids go back to classrooms would “only cost us 2 to 3 percent in terms of total mortality.” Sounded good to both men at the time. Why not wipe out “only” 2 percent to 3 percent of our citizenry? As you can well imagine, the feedback on social media was intense regarding the tone-deaf duo’s heartless discussion.
Then there’s Dr. Phil, who told the equally foul fool Laura Ingraham, “45,000 people a year die from automobile accidents, 480,000 from cigarettes, 360,000 a year from swimming pools, but we don’t shut the country down for that.” First, a couple of those figures were way off, and second, it’s easy for him to say this while he’s holed up in his multimillion-dollar Beverly Hills mansion, blissfully unaware of anyone’s suffering, only cognizant of his own misery at no longer being America’s therapist. Selfish to a fault. Does he sound like any other rich, “tanned,” self-centered older man you know?
Indeed, Dr. Phil told us to just “wipe” that comment away, just like Trump wants you to wipe away all the times he said the virus was a hoax, a media conspiracy, and a Democratic Party scheme to take him down.
Both doctors apologized for their remarks, but their comments were the final coffin nails for their fledging careers. Once they stooped so low as to appear on Fox — the last resort of media appearances — and then took the next steps down by speaking with Hannity and Ingraham, they basically lost their credibility.
It should be noted that back in the day, Dr. Oz ticked off many in our community when he aired a show about reparative (conversion) therapy for LGBTQ youth. Likewise, Dr. Phil caught hell for suggesting that a young boy who liked Barbie could be put back on the straight and narrow. Both men have subsequently become more vocal supporting our community, namely advocating for trans rights, but their expertise is not related to LGBTQ issues, and therefore, again, their credibility comes into question.
America is seeing a new breed of relevant, polished, poised, practical, and practiced physicians emerge out of this crisis — reality fact-based medicine versus reality TV sickness sensationalized. Thus, it was fitting that after Dr. Phil’s performance on Ingraham’s show, Dr. Fauci came on to call out and strike down false facts and remedies.
The remaining fanatical fans of Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil are now the ones demonstrating against sound social distancing guidelines, and tearing into Dr. Fauci and demanding his firing. That should tell you all you need to know about how low Oz and Phil have stooped. When all else fails, and your ego demands attention and no one else will have you, there’s always Fox. And that’s a dead end.
If they genuinely were speaking in the public interest, I’d give them the benefit of the doubt. But we all can surmise that that was not the case. Their appearances diminished any credibility they had established over the last two decades.
However, the publicity-hungry Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil can take solace in the fact that when this crisis abates, they’ll both always have a home to mouth-off their misguided analysis on Fox, Or, more likely, restart their own afternoon programs when the Trump/Bannon/Kushner TV network is launched in January of 2021, where all quacks and quackery will be boorishly welcomed.
John Casey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.