American Culture

Dr. Oz: New York Times and bogus “equal time” coverage of predator quack

Once again, the New York Times gives journalism a black eye with Oz coverage

Looking at this chronology of the NYT’s coverage of the Oz story really makes me wonder why they’re giving him a reach-around.

Here’s my summary of the coverage as extracted from the above linked search results:

    • April 16, 2015: Real doctors criticize quack (AP)
    • April 17, 2015: Mention of quack criticism in: Friday Briefing and New York Today: Stuffed
    • April 17, 2015: Oz defends (AP via ABC as I’ve reached my NYT limit before everything is paywalled)

Five pieces on the attack. Six pieces on the defense. What gets me is the last four in the chronology. It seems to me that Oz has cranked up his PR machine to manage the message and NYT is busily rubbing lotion on its hands. This isn’t a case for equal coverage for all sides. The NYT shouldn’t just be a soapbox from which a celebrity quack can run damage control.

This not just in: Scientists tallied up all the advice on Dr. Oz’s show. Half of it was baseless or wrong.

And what they found was disappointing but not exactly surprising: about half of the health recommendations had either no evidence behind them or they actually contradicted what the best-available science tells us. That means about half of what these TV doctors say to their millions of satellite patients is woo, and potentially harmful and wasteful woo at that (emphasis added).

And just who is the audience for Oz’s special brand of claptrap? In other words, who stands the highest risk of either being harmed or of being parted from their limited funds (note: from 2013)?

If, by and large, daytime audiences are getting older, there is also some evidence to suggest that they are becoming more downwardly mobile as well. As far back as 2001, research firm Frank N. Magid Associates reported that 40% of the daytime viewers make less than $20,000 a year, and 85% don’t have a college degree. In September of last year, Pew Research published the following findings: “Regular viewers of daytime talk shows are less educated than the public as a whole. Among this group, just 19% have four year degrees, 26% have attended some college and 54% have a high school diploma or less education.” That same survey also reported: “Daytime talk show watchers stand out as the least well off regular audience. About half (51%) have family incomes of less than $30,000, while three-in-ten have $30,000-$74,999 incomes. Just 12% have incomes of $75,000 or more.”

Why in hell is the New York Times giving this snake oil peddler a megaphone? Then again, it’s not that AP is doing any better considering their articles get wider distribution.

While you’re at it, please note the way Oz frames his defense as a matter of free speech. No. It is not a matter of free speech. If Columbia does the right thing and ousts him, he is still, unfortunately, a Dr. and keeps the title as well as his brand. He still has his celebrity status, and would probably get a bump from playing the martyr card. And to top it off, it’s hardly like he’s so hard up for cash that losing affiliation with Columbia would silence him with the kind of poverty enjoyed by a huge chunk of his audience marks.

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Image credit: aimee rivers @ flickr.com. Licensed under Creative Commons.

10 replies »

  1. I was talking this week with a physicist about predicting marathon times. It turns out, it’s not that hard to do. Past performance in shorter races and simulations is a pretty good predictor of expected performance. He asked me if any of the people I train with ever ask me to predict their times. And the answer is no. People don’t really want science. For the most part, they want pseudo-science. They’d rather believe that by tweaking eating habits or sleeping with a mask on their face or taking extra Vitamin D or writing inspirational quotes on the inside of their wrists with a Sharpie, they’ll do the impossible and run a 3 hour marathon when their personal best is a 5. (For my last run, I wanted to believe I could do a 3:10, but my mathematical models say 3:28 and I did 3:29. So much for hope.)

    In short, as I’ve argued to Sammy, people like to believe stupid shit, whether it’s astrology or ancestor worship or Christianity or Oz’s nonsense or copper bracelets or or secret strategies to win the lottery or massive conspiracies or whatever. I’m not quite sure why, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, but people just like to believe silly nonsense. Oz is a little worse than most because he leeches off the medical profession, which at least makes an attempt at thinking seriously, but were he not there, some other quackpot would be offering up the same nonsense.

    BTW, I’m mildly offfended by your implied argument that we should protect the ignorant and stupid from Dr. Oz, and that ignorance and stupidity is strongly linked to income. At best it’s patronizing, although the stats also say that conservatism is also linked to ignorance and stupidity, so if your argument works, maybe we could also use it to get Fox News shut down. 🙂

  2. Gosh, Frank. Surely you don’t expect The Times, et al. to do more than “he said, they said” coverage inflected by spin, do you? (snicker). BTW: Whenever you need Times links, lemme know; I’ve got a Times account through the university.

  3. I’m bothered by a lot related to this story:

    1) I’m bothered that a genuinely talented physician got so enamored of fame and money that he has sold his credibility, his hard earned prestige, and his profession out.

    2) I’m bothered that the NYT is not a great newspaper anymore.

    3) I’m bothered that poor, ignorant people are objects of derision more than of pity anymore.

    4) I’m bothered that many more people are not bothered by these things than are.

    • I’d bothered by #3 a lot more if said ignorant people weren’t so aggressively devoted to remaining ignorant and if their ignorance weren’t such a badge of honor for them.

      • All you say is true, Sam. However, that doesn’t make it bother me any less. And that aggressive ignorance you note is part and parcel of their being manipulated by powers they do not understand – we both know that inoculation against competent counter argument is a staple of the Right’s media outlets. And I think more of those who are truly uneducated and incurious rather than those who are willfully so. Not the same groups, exactly, though there are overlaps, I think. I suspect that study of these might show that the willfully ignorant are often in positions to adversely affect the truly ignorant on a grassroots level. I think, too, I chose the wrong word – instead of “bothered,” I would substitute “sad.”

  4. I certainly hope I wasn’t ambiguous or accidentally created the impression I was deriding or patronizing the poor or under-educated, but from both Otherwise’s and Jim’s comments, I fear that might be the impression. My point in raising the detail of audience demographics is that I’m certain, cynically perhaps, that both Oz and his producers/handlers are keenly aware of his show’s demographics and are intentionally capitalizing on it in a predatory manner. Should that not be observed?

    • I didn’t get that impression at all Frank. You pointed out that the NYT favors puffery over truth and that Mehmet Cingez Oz gives questionable advice. I agree and there’s no elitism in that. Neither is pointing out that his audience of daytime tv watchers are somewhat less educated and poorer than average.If we drilled a little deeper we’d also find they’re blacker and older than the mean and that’s not racist or ageist it’s just data.

      One point I’d make though is that “adverse events”, the medical euphemism for treatment killing a patient is the estimated basis of 400,000+/- deaths a year. That makes it the third leading cause of mortality in the US after heart disease and cancer. So if we’re handing out quack cards, we might as well ask the printer for volume pricing.

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