When daytime infotainment counts as medical transparency.
By Ted Scheinman
(Screenshot: The Dr. Oz Show/Harpo Productions)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump appeared on The Dr. Oz Show this week to discuss his health and release a portion of a physical assessment from his personal doctor. The episode is the Trump campaign’s latest gesture toward transparency—and a rebuke to the Hillary Clinton campaign’s caginess about the Democratic candidate’s recent pneumonia diagnosis. During the segment that aired on Thursday, Trump touted his blood pressure (excellent), prostate health (no polyps), weight (236 pounds—Trump says he wants to lose 15), immune system (“I don’t get much with the colds”), cholesterol (he takes a statin), and exercise regimen (pretty much limited to gesticulating on the stump, and golfing).
It was a good moment for the candidate. Trump used his indoor, “presidential” voice and spoke with a simplicity and occasional self-deprecation that made total sense on daytime television: It wasn’t candid, but it sure looked it. Dr. Mehmet Oz seemed pleased and honored by the presence of the mogul, who returned the compliment in kind: “My wife’s a big fan of your show,” Trump told Oz. “I view this, in a way, as going to see my doctor.” As CNN’s Brian Stelter notes, this kind of media tactic is a canny play to women voters, among whom Trump has continued to struggle.
Oz, an accomplished heart surgeon, is in many ways the perfect intermediary for Trump. Critics have noted that both men share a penchant for fringe science and miracle cures, but their affinity goes far deeper. Trump took the Republican nomination because he was the beneficiary of a widespread referendum on expertise and institutionalized authority of all kinds (call him Mr. Brexit). Dr. Oz has made an empire in media (and arguably retail) by convincing his viewers that they know more than their doctors.
Trump thrives on acritical credulity, and whether the interviewer is Matt Lauer or Dr. Oz, he tends to get it.
This is a kind of apotheosis for the demimonde of conservative newsletters and junk science peddled by Trump backers such as Alex Jones and Steve Bannon (now CEO of the Trump campaign): For decades now, fringe news hubs like Newsmax and Townhall have entwined anti-elite conspiracy theories with miraculous-sounding heart supplements and weight-loss regimes, all under the unifying rubric that the mandarins in Washington do not want you to know where the aliens landed, just as they don’t want you to know about this 23-cent miracle cure. (During a hearing, Senator Claire McCaskill accused Oz of “melding medical advice, news, and entertainment in a way that harms consumers.”) Together, Oz and Trump represent the two strands in this double-helix of bad science and trash politics: Oz provides the suspicious, life-changing green coffee beans, and Trump brings the generalized paranoia. Rick Perlstein has written the definitive guide to this particular intersection of conservative infotainment:
The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place — and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began. [It divides] the moral universe in two — between the realm of the wicked, populated by secretive, conspiratorial elites, and the realm of the normal, orderly, safe, and sane.
Oz is perfect for Trump: To the anti-authoritarian, Oz is enabler, mentor, and friend. As Michael Specter wrote in his 2013 profile of Oz for TheNew Yorker:
The era of paternalistic medicine, where the doctor knew best and the patient felt lucky to have him, has ended. We don’t worship authority figures anymore. Our health-care system has become impersonal, mechanized, and hollow, and it has failed millions of people, many of whom want to find a way to regain control of their own medical decisions. As Oz likes to say, Marcus Welby — the kindly, accessible, but straight-talking television doctor — is dead.
It doesn’t matter, in other words, how many senators or members of the medical establishment howl when Oz embraces pseudoscience: Their objections serve only to bolster the doctor’s credibility before his fans, just as Trump’s base does not repine, but instead delights, whenever a credentialed member of the political or cultural establishment calls their candidate unfit for office.
To understand why it was almost inevitable that Trump’s medical theatrics would happen on The Dr. Oz Show, it’s worth re-visiting another crucial passage from Specter’s profile, where Oz describes his anti-hierarchical vision of medical treatment:
I would take us all back a thousand years, when our ancestors lived in small villages and there was always a healer in that village — and his job wasn’t to give you heart surgery or medication but to help find a safe place for conversation.
Oz’s show was a safe space for Trump, the kind the candidate has sought throughout the campaign (his soft-pitch Megyn Kelly sit-down is a prime example). Trump thrives on acritical credulity, and whether the interviewer is Matt Lauer or Dr. Oz, he tends to get it. TV news is starting to get the message that Oz has always understood: that the audience would rather be empowered than informed.