Dr. Mel Levine was found dead at his home last week, a suicide. His once successful and nationally prominent career as a pediatrician was derailed when he was sued by a succession of former patients who alleged that he sexually molested them. He had surrendered his medical license and teaching position at the University of North Carolina, and hardly any of the obituaries mentioned that he was once one of Oprah Winfrey’s health experts.
But writer Tracie Egan Morrissey remembered, and detected a pattern that is disturbing and real. There have been other experts and authorities that Oprah introduced to her trusting and huge audience of admirers that should have been rejected after competent vetting. Dr. Phil, of course, is a fraud, having given up his license as a psychotherapist in Texas but never surrendering the misleading title of “Dr.” In 2003, Oprah’s show introduced America to plastic surgeon Jan Andrews, who subsequently was revealed (by others) to have had multiple DUI and malpractice lawsuits and to lack board-certification as a plastic surgeon. Not before, however, he had operated on hip-hop artist Kanye West’s mother, who died of complications from her plastic surgery. All mention of Andrews, and Levine, have been scrubbed from Oprah’s website.
Then there was Jenny McCarthy, whom Oprah promoted and provided a platform to spread her deadly and medically unsupportable misinformation about the connection between autism and vaccines.And she boosted the credibility of Rhonda Byrne, a best-selling self-help author (“The Secret,” “The Power”) who is even more transparently a charlatan the most of her breed, though Oprah made it clear that she was a believer.
Morrissey correctly diagnoses the ethical problem: “Seeing as how Oprah’s most successful “product” these days is cultivating and grooming personalities into credible and trusted sources, a great deal of responsibility comes with that task.” And she’s not meeting that responsibility. Oprah has a duty to diligently check out her “experts,” and to be as sure as possible that they are giving her audience insight and wisdom, not myths, false hopes, half-truths and snake oil. Instead, she is leading her fans to trust the untrustworthy.