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April 23, 2015
Two weeks ahead of his 1,000th show, Dr. Mehmet Oz broadcast what could have been his most important show. On Thursday, the TV doctor spent nearly half of his hour on what the bold on-screen graphics called “Dr. Oz Fires Back.”
He has plenty to fire back at. And he wasted no time taking aim.
Seconds after the opening, Oz brings up the “brazen letter” sent by 10 doctors to Columbia University demanding he be removed from the faculty. Doctors, he says, should “never fight their battles in public.” This time is different. He stares into the camera. “Now I believe I must.”
Fired up but also displaying the on-screen cool of a man nearing that magical 1,000th show, Oz suggests the letter was less about a “backlash” to his alternative medicine advocacy and more about his position on GMO labeling. The doctors who signed it and their ties to industry are the real story. “I wanted to learn who these doctors really were,” he says, announcing that he hired an investigative reporter to take a look. For a man who has been accused of hyping theories without evidence, Oz has plenty this time.
In the style of a “60 Minutes” segment, the reporter rips into "10 physicians with one agenda.” The letter’s author, Henry Miller, is a “shill” for industry. The other doctors had “conflicts of interests.” One is “a felon,” jailed for Medicare fraud. Most have ties to the Hoover Institution and the American Council for Health Sciences, both described as clearinghouses for pro-industry doctors and scientists supporting tobacco, pesticides “and more.”
And that was just the first five minutes.
The ubiquitous “Urgent News Report!” music fading, Oz introduces Dr. Joel Fuhrman, another TV personality doctor, who calls the letter “ugly.”
“It’s an attack on all physicians,” Fuhrman says. It’s also “anti-American, anti-freedom.”
This is where the “Dr. Oz Fights Back” strategy begins to slip off mission. The investigative reporters’ work was provocative. Inviting a supportive colleague to call the letter “anti-freedom” borders on hysterical. Oz had already called the letter an “attack on free speech.” He left out the part about the letter also being free speech.
His chat with Fuhrman done, Oz pivots back to GMOs, but even here, he keeps missing the opportunity. He boasts of presenting both sides on the science, citing a balanced segment on the genetically engineered Arctic Apple. Defending your fairness record against people you’ve already discredited seems an odd use of air time, but he goes on: “Public shaming and bullying is not how it should be done,” he says.
And then he’s steps back to the patriotic soapbox. “Freedom of speech is the most fundamental right we have as Americans.” Yeah, we heard you before. “We will not be silenced,” he says. “We will not give in.”
Then it goes to the commercial break and we see — wait for it — Lipozene, “the No. 1-selling weight loss product in America.” It’s unlikely that Oz has any say on what commercials run on local TV channels, but still, disassociating himself from weight loss products is going to take more than some on-screen oaths.
Eighteen minutes into the show, he’s back, describing Kansas republican Bill Pompeo’s “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” as an effort to “deny American’s right to know.” He’s right. The bill would stop states from requiring GMO labeling, which, as Oz pointed out earlier, is all he ever asked for in the GMO debate, but when he says the act “takes away your right to vote in your state for what your family wants to eat,” he falls back to his drama voice.
That’s when it becomes clear. Even when the arguments are valid, the Dr. Oz show is about entertainment. Even when the episode is important to his reputation, and even more important to the public, it’s still a TV show.
Sure, Scott Faber from the Environmental Working Group has gravitas, and the exchange with Oz is grounded, but when the “WHAT’S BEHIND THE ATTACK?” graphic slides in, the spectacle takes away from the seriousness.
Finally, 20-something minutes in, he turns to the true opportunity of the moment. Oz tells viewers that the real issue with GMOs isn’t the risk of the foods themselves. It’s the glyphosate pesticides they were engineered to tolerate. He explains that the World Health Organization called glyphosate a potential carcinogen. He mentions 3,000 doctors in Argentina demanding a ban. He brings up a petition the show started asking the White House to stop the use of a glyphosate “super pesticide.”
This is where the soapbox should be used. So the attack was personal. The response needs to be bigger than that. That the doctors behind last week’s letter have questionable backgrounds sets a well-lighted stage with the brightest light right on Oz. He has a chance to change the conversation on GMOs away from the vague threat of “Frankenwhatever” and onto a one-word threat that everybody will understand: poison.
This is the moment. This is the opportunity. He can seize it.
But he doesn’t. He doesn’t talk about other emerging science that glyphosate kills bacteria in the human gut. He doesn’t talk about how indiscriminately they are used in the age of GMOs. Instead, he goes back to Faber and labeling and how much those big food companies want to control the “real estate” on their labels.
At 24 minutes in, the music tells us another commercial break is coming. It also tells us that Oz is done firing back. We’re not going to hear any more about glyphosate. We’re going to hear about “the dangerous trend everybody is talking about,” which turns out to be a drug that’s “all the rage” and gives users “superhuman strength.” We’re also going to hear about a restaurant “that wants children banned!”
We’re not going to hear about glyphosate.
The rest of the episode is typically sensational. Did you know that the 911 system is broken? Did you know that feeling young makes you live longer? Did you know that the woman in the front row feels younger when she dances in the produce section to embarrass her children? We also hear a lot about that 1,000th episode. It’s May 7. Mark your calendar.
At the end of the show, Oz does return to the issue of “free speech” and the pro-GMO agenda behind last week’s letter. He gives it a full 15 seconds, maybe 20.
And then it’s over. He’s done firing back. He’s on to new things. Hugh Jackman is coming in two weeks. Next week is “Celebrity Confessions.” Mo’Nique lost 100 pounds!
The debate, it appears, was merely a distraction from the mission at hand. That mission, as it has always been, is entertainment.
Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal
As Nutrition Business Journal's editor-in-chief, Rick Polito writes about the trends, deals and developments in the natural nutrition industry, looking for the little companies coming up and the big money coming in. An award-winning journalist, Polito knows that facts and figures never give the complete context and that the story of this industry has always been about people.
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