As it is for ski resorts and T.S. Elliot, April has been the cruelest month for Dr. Oz. Last week, a group of 10 doctors called for Columbia University to drop him from the faculty. This week, writers are picking apart Oz mentions in the Sony emails trove released by WikiLeaks.
Whether it’s been a good month for the doctor’s critics may not be clear. It may not matter, either.
People who support the doctor, or at least support pieces of his healthy-living message, have pointed to the part of the well-publicized letter to the Columbia University president that calls out the doctor for his stance on GMO labeling. They note that the letter’s author, Henry Miller, is connected to the conservative climate-change-deniers at the Hoover Institute, and that he both promoted GMOs and spoke in opposition to California’s Prop 37. When Miller wrote of Oz’s “baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops,” he sounds very much like a Monsanto press release.
That matters, but it mainly matters to people with deeper interest and longer attention spans than the average headline-skimmer.
To the broader public ear, it may matter even less that the WikiLeaks headlines are more sensational than substantial. That the doctor wanted to consider and possibly promote Sony’s forays into fitness monitors in his coverage of such devices is not exactly shocking. Sony and the Oz show are in business together. Of course they would. They talked about his Senate panel appearance before he testified? Of course they did. None of that justifies tweets like, “Dr. Oz is a quack snake oil salesman open to the highest bidder say WikiLeaks documents.”
But fairness isn’t the issue here. Twitter has never been an arena of the just and fair. In the fickle flicker of public perception, nuance counts for nothing. When 10 doctors demand a surgeon be dropped from the Columbia University faculty, few people will care who those ten doctors are. When your name shows up in a WikiLeaks headline, it's unlikely to be for a pat on the back.
Dr. Oz still has his show. He still has viewers and followers. The daytime TV audience probably doesn’t care much about the New Yorker asking, “Is the most trusted doctor in America doing more harm than good?” Still, Oz is approaching the tipping point between celebrity and notoriety. Notoriety may work for Charlie Sheen. It doesn’t work for “America’s Doctor.” In the death of a thousand cuts, Oz is on cut 980.
All of this could be the peculiar to the life cycle in the health celebrity niche. At some point, your profile is high enough to draw fire. At some point your confidence outruns your credibility. That began for Oz before last summer’s Senate hearing, where he looked like a befuddled 4th grader trying to explain his way out of cheating on a math test. Vani “The Food Babe” Hari should be careful. She’s nearing 1 million Facebook fans and she doesn’t even have an MD. On Tuesday, the Washington Post credited her with nudging Kraft into removing artificial colors from its macaroni and cheese, but Gawker called her “full of $#!&” last week.
Every claim counts
In his show today, Oz has promised to come out swinging. He is certainly right to question Miller’s GMO stance. He could justifiably shrug off the WikiLeaks. He’ll have a harder time being heard above the noise he created. How do you backtrack on raspberry ketones and green coffee beans without reminding people you promoted them? On Time.com today, Oz writes, "I wish I could take back enthusiastic words I used to support these products years ago." Sorry doc, you can’t. In front of the Senate panel, he described those words as “flowery language.” A better description might be “careless.”
His attempt in the Time.com piece to turn the conversation to glyphosates, the pesticide that is emerging as the true villain in the GMO controversy, should be applauded. Maybe he has the spotlight and the bullhorn to get people to see the immediate threat in GMOs as crops that tolerate and promote the use of glyphosates.
Right now, it’s hard to see anything but downslope for Oz, and that does matter for the natural products industry. The industry is not without media-savvy supporters, most vastly more credible than the Food Babe, but mud slung on one splatters on all.
Perhaps the best advice to ever come from Oz would be for his fellow health celebrities, and it would come not from him, but from his story. That lesson would be to keep health ahead of hubris. It’s not enough to be credible. You have to stay credible.
Every claim counts, the wild eclipsing the worthy every time.