Thursday, June 19, 2014

Why the Dr. Oz Flap Doesn’t Bother Me. Much.

He may or may not have been wrong.  But he was sincere.  And believe me, there are worse things.

This has not been a fabulous week for Dr. Mehmet C. Oz, a.k.a “Dr. Oz,” host of the TV show by the same name.  A senate subcommittee investigating false weight loss advertising claims gave him the third degree for touting certain suspect substances on his popular program, flat-out accusing him of making false statements to his audience.  In the aftermath, news organizations across the country ran stories about his public spanking.  A medical reporter for Fox News called him a “snake oil pitchman.”  CNN’s story ran a banner exclaiming in big capital letters “Dr. Oz accused of peddling bogus drugs.”

The problem with the latter is that Dr. Oz didn’t “peddle” anything.  There is no evidence that any of the information on his program was paid advertising.  Oz specifically denied that it was.  Further, in legal terms the substances are not drugs—“bogus” or otherwise.  They are dietary supplements, are legal for sale, and their effectiveness has not been disproved (although, to be sure, nor have scientists confirmed the benefits).

What Dr. Oz did do was to endorse, with gusto, the claims that the supplements work, thereby throwing the full weight of his substantial credibility behind the products.  Sales reportedly went through the roof, and that’s what has the senators’ shorts in a bunch.

Dr. Oz is not some random piece of weirdness of the street.  He’s chairman and professor of surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.  That’s a pretty prestigious gig.  Dr. Oz reportedly has authored more than 400 research papers—productivity that would be impressive by any standard.  But what he’s not is a trained journalist.  And if there’s a point where his program ran off the rails, it was there.

One of the products Dr. Oz endorsed is Garcinia cambogia, which is an extract taken from the tamarind fruit.  Dr. Oz introduced the initial 2012 segment by pointing out that one question he gets asked a lot is,   “How can I burn fat without spending every waking moment dieting and exercising?”  A graphic behind him emphasized the point, displaying the phrases “NO EXERCISE,” “NO DIET,” and “NO EFFORT,” in all caps.  Dr. Oz then went on to say that Garcinia cambogia just might be the answer, calling it a “revolutionary fat buster.” 

At this point he introduced what gray-headed old TV news guys like me would call a “package,” a pre-recorded piece about the substance.  It presented the product enthusiastically and uncritically, and offered no alternative viewpoints.  The story interviewed two “experts,” but did not attempt to explain the credentials of either one to the audience.  So I did some checking on my own.  One is a college professor.  Significantly, I found an essay he later co-wrote on Garcinia cambogia in which he acknowledges that studies of its effectiveness have produced “divergent and contradictory outcomes” (he goes on to say the extract can work if handled very carefully).  The other expert is not employed as a scholar but rather is a nutritionist who’s worked for various private companies. 

Following the piece, Dr. Oz interviewed a doctor on the set, also neglecting to explain what credentials, if any, she has on this particular dietary supplement.  A check of her background shows she is indeed a respected physician in private practice and also a prolific magazine and web author.  In response to a question from Dr. Oz, this expert agreed that Garcinia cambogia can lead to weight loss, but she emphasized the need for proper diet and exercise at the same time, which completely negated the premise that Dr. Oz had set out at the beginning.  Dr. Oz skipped right over this point.  When he asked her point blank whether she would recommend this substance, the expert said she would, but not primarily because of any weight loss benefit.  Dr. Oz glided over that point, too.  Neither Dr. Oz nor his guest sourced any of their information other than with vague references to “studies,” “research,” and “excited scientists.”  Missing was any sense of who conducted these supposed studies, when they were conducted, whether other studies had obtained the same results, and what kind of reaction, if any, the studies were provoking from the scientific and medical communities.  The two of them capped off the segment with an interview from an attractive lady who claimed to have lost two dress sizes while taking the extract.  Astonishingly—given the premise of the segment—neither asked this guest whether she also dieted or exercised while taking the substance..

So, journalistically speaking, the story was not a giant.  I doubt many journalism professors would have given it a passing grade; I am one news TV director who certainly wouldn’t have approved it for air.  Consumers reportedly stampeded to buy the product anyway, though, fueled in part by advertisements quoting Dr. Oz.  He says those advertisements used his name and image without his permission and that he’s gone to court to try to stop it.

So if the journalism doesn’t add up, why am I not more bothered?

Here’s why:  no one is accusing Dr. Oz of taking money to say what he said.  He told Congress his beliefs that the products have merit are sincere.  Indeed, the scientific evidence is mixed at best, but the effectiveness of the products in question by and large has not been disproved.   He insists he took no money to tout the supplements.  “I don't sell this stuff,” he told viewers.  “I'm not making any money on this.  I'm not going to mention any brands to you either.”  No one has suggested that this statement was in any way false or misleading.  Dr. Oz may or may not have been right in his analysis, but he wasn’t dishonest about it.

I’ve had personal experience with the latter problem.  The truth is, as a consumer you can’t be sure whether what you see, even on traditional, mainstream newscasts, is news or advertising.  Would it shock you to learn that some TV stations take money to put people on the news?  It happens.  When I was a news director, I was approached for such services on occasion.  Every now and then you’ll hear about a news director resigning rather than give in to such a dishonest practice.  Mostly, when stealth advertising—a commercial masquerading as straight news or information—gets sneaked into a newscast or talk show, you simply never know about it, and you take the “news” story or information at face value.  Such uncritical acceptance is, of course, the entire point, given that news carries much more credibility than advertising.  I’ve written and talked about stealth advertising in the past, and I’m not the only one.  Yet the public is largely unaware of the issue.

There are FCC regulations against hiding sponsorship connections in news and information programming, but you rarely if ever hear of enforcement.  I have heard from more than one news director over the years who’ve faced a very simple decision:  give in to pressure to provide news coverage for an advertiser (the pressure can come in many forms), refuse and risk the job consequences, or refuse and quit.  What would you do?  My experience is that most do not refuse.  And even when one does walk rather than give in to a dishonest and unethical practice, that person’s replacement typically carries out the program, and in the end you’re left with one less ethical news manager in the business, and one less station where an honest news director can land a job.

I can’t tell you how widespread this problem is.  I can only tell you that, anecdotally, I’ve run across it many times, have had to fight it on occasion, and know of others who’ve faced the same issue, not always successfully.

Some stations, wishing to provide enhanced long-form advertising services but not wishing to cross any ethical lines, offer entertainment/talk programs for that specific purpose.  Usually (but not always) such programs do not masquerade as newscasts, and none of the station’s journalists are involved.  I personally have no problem with such programs at all, provided the advertising connection is disclosed, as most do.  As a news director, I’ve peacefully co-existed with such programs within the same building.  As an author, I’ve appeared on them, and was glad and privileged to do so.  They’re not the problem, and in fact provide a worthwhile and perfectly honorable service.

But if the information is not labeled as advertising when it is such, then that does present a problem.  In one past job, I fought hard to have such a program (produced by another department within the TV station where I was working at the time) honestly and clearly label its paid content.  In a meeting with the company CEO, I cued up a recent segment where the program host was touting a magnet that was alleged to cure all manner of maladies.  Lying down on the set’s coffee table, he placed the magnet on his abdomen.  “I can feel the difference already!” he gushed, or words to that effect.  Maybe he did.  Maybe he didn’t.  In making that judgment, you, the viewer, should be allowed to know whether an advertiser paid him to say that.  And I’m here to tell you that you can’t always know—not for talk shows, and not even for some mainstream newscasts.

Dr. Oz does not seem to fall into that category.  He has an impressive level of expertise and is entitled to his opinions.  And certainly, the public is entitled to hold him accountable for them.  His credibility turns on your perception of whether he knows what he’s talking about.  As it should.  He may or may not be right about the dietary substances he touted.  But there’s no evidence to suggest he’s in any way dishonest.  And believe me, that is not nothing.


Find out more about the inner workings of TV news in my novel, Messages.  It’s a work of fiction, but contains a lot of truth—some of which may surprise you.

©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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