Recently on NPR, Robert Seigel asked Michael Specter, a staff writer from The New Yorker, who he would bet on to win: Dr. Oz or the physicians who have raised a petition against his position at Columbia University. Specter answered in a heartbeat: “Oz, sorry to say.”

Dr. Oz has been accused of telling lies. In a particularly egregious one he said there was a study that showed that green coffee extract can dramatically lower body weight. The study he was talking about involved less than 20 people in India, and was so hopelessly flawed that nothing of any value could reasonably be drawn from the findings. And even it if wasn’t flawed, the sample size was so small that it would be meaningless beyond suggesting that a larger, more comprehensive study be done.

There’s probably a lot more he’s fudged through the years, though if he were anything other than America’s Doctor, one big lie would be enough.

If he were a journalist:

When journalists tell fibs they lose their careers and their credibility. Jonah Lehrer was a bit creative with some Bob Dylan quotes. Note, when people say he “fabricated” quotes, you think he made them up out of whole cloth. He didn’t. He extended some quotes, things that Dylan really said, to make them zing a bit more in the narrative that he was creating about creativity. To some extent that’s not unusual in journalism according to Janet Malcolm in her book “The Journalist and the Murderer.” There’s a fine line somewhere. Lehrer crossed it. He’s not a journalist anymore.

If he were a monologist, that is, someone who performs monologues on stage:

Mike Daisey lied a bit, saying that he saw Chinese factory workers using certain chemicals when producing Apple products. He didn’t, he read about it. The chemicals were really used, though not at the time that Daisey led his audience to believe. He also suggested it was an ongoing practice, which it wasn’t. Still, he’s disgraced. One strike, he’s out.

If he were a witness in court:

Witness lying in courtWhen a witness lies under oath, they’re guilty of a crime, perjury, which could potentially result in jail time. Benjamin Monty Robinson was convicted of perjury for exaggerating the behaviour of Robert Dziekanski, a Polish man who was tased by police and died. Dziekanski was violent—he threw chairs yelled, and otherwise acted very unwell in an international airport—and never mind that most of us assume that taser’s aren’t intended to be fatal, and that indeed it wasn’t the officer’s intention to kill Dziekanski, or that a quick decision had to be made in a confusing, if not full-blown chaotic, situation. On the stand, Robinson played his cards in his favour, and he got dinged. Between that and some other things, he’s no longer a member of police force today.

If he were a memoirist:

James Frey wrote a good story that, had he called it a novel, might still be very highly regarded today. He called it a memoir, and some of it wasn’t true, and Frey has since been disgraced.

If Oz’s show were called an infomercial:

He’d have to abide by a strict set of rules which, in Canada, is the Competition Act and, in the U.S., is the Federal Trade Commission Act. Both require that an advertiser be able to, when asked, demonstrate that their claims are based on evidence. The company that made the claims for green coffee extract—this is the company that Dr. Oz endorsed to his viewers—settled with the FTC for $3.5 million after it was shown that the study, poor as it was, had been based on false information, including the weights of the participants at the outset of the study (yes, they were said to have weighed more than they actually did).

Oz cited a “staggering newly released study” and went on, and on, and on from there. He said, “You may think magic is make believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they found a magic weight loss cure for every body type… This miracle pill can burn fat fast for anyone who wants to lose weight. This is very exciting and it’s breaking news.”

For the company that made the product, saying that was illegal, and they paid the $3.5 fine. But Dr. Oz doesn’t present himself as an advertiser—he denies that he is one—and therefore avoids having to abide by FTC rules or questioning. Like the companies behind the products he shills, Oz often has a direct financial interest in their success, an interest that he has sought. (For a very stark example, read this)

Dr. Oz defends himself by citing his freedom of speech. Everyone else has that freedom too, of course, including journalists, writers, actors and investors. Yet, when those people lie, there are consequences, and there are lots of good reasons for that. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that journalists can make up quotes, or entire stories. It doesn’t protect people like Bernie Madoff when he tells his clients that their money is safe, and that his practices are sound. Freedom, after all, comes with responsibilities. As does being a doctor. Doctors, per the Hippocratic Oath, have a responsibility to “first do no harm.” It’s a powerful idea, though not one that Dr. Oz seems to take very seriously.

In everything he’s done, and in every defense he’s made, Dr. Oz feels he’s above the responsibility that everyone else in the world lives by.  He doesn’t call himself a journalist, or an actor, or a monologist, or an investor, or a memoirist. While he’s “America’s Doctor” he’s not responsible to the individual members of his audience in the way that my doctor is responsible for me. The result is that he’s above the fate of those people, or politicians, or, truly, you and me. In the meantime, nothing much will happen to Oz, and his credibility—as fallacious as it is—will continue undiminished. Sorry to say.

We, on the other hand, should learn something from all of this: we need to assume our own responsibility in these kinds of situations. We need to be careful where we place our trust, and the litmus test is, I think, what happens if they betray our trust. If our doctor screws up, or the teacher of our child screws up, etc., there will be consequences. Whenever we place our trust in someone who is above consequences, we need to stop and reconsider.

The doctor on TV is not our doctor. Until you’re sitting in Dr. Oz’s consulting room, he’s not interested in you, or your health, and he has no professional responsibility for you at all. The television companies that air his show have relinquished that responsibility as well. Good to know. It’s a reminder that, at the end of the day, if you have any questions, talk to your doctor and otherwise trust the people who really are responsible for you, and who have accepted and value the trust that you have placed in them. As consumers of media, now more than ever, the rule is “let the buyer beware.”

by Glen Herbert
images: 1. Doctor putting money into his pocket with his left hand Copyright: Niyazz Shutterstock Image ID: 217388029 2. Shyster Lawyer Copyright: Robert2301 Shutterstock Image ID: 22256302