New Wikileaks release peeks behind the scenes of America’s quack

It would appear that some people got the impression that, just because I questioned whether a recent publicity stunt in which ten doctors and researchers, led by a well-known pro-GMO activist working for the Hoover Institution, Dr. Henry Miller, sent a letter to the dean at Columbia University in essence asking him to fire Oz for his promotion of quackery and, pointedly, anti-GMO fear mongering on his show was a good idea, somehow I’m going easy on Dr. Oz. Not at all. Miller and his compatriots at the Hoover Institution and the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) made what I see as a spectacular blunder, and it’s because I detest Oz and want to see effective methods brought to bear to counter his quackery that Hoover’s antics—and, yes, that is the perfect word to describe what he did—irritate me so much.

That’s why another story yesterday caught my eye. At first, I was wondering whether I should address it because it seems so much like a “dog bites man” story, telling us nothing that we don’t already know about our old friend Mehmet Oz. On the other hand, it’s the way that it tells us about how The Dr. Oz Show operates that makes it worth a notice. The information comes to us, initially, in the form of a story by Julia Belluz again, New WikiLeaks documents reveal the inner workings of the Dr. Oz Show:

Dr. Mehmet Oz often appears on his popular show to promote new health products and devices. Most viewers are likely under the impression that he’s doing this because he’s closely considered their merits and decided the products are widely beneficial.

But newly leaked emails suggest that business considerations — not health or science — can be a driving factor in which products Oz decides to promote.

Last week, WikiLeaks released a series of emails sent between Dr. Oz, his staff, and executives at Sony (one of his show’s producers)Show. They shed some light on how Dr. Oz’s daily talk show works behind the scenes.

See what I mean about this being a “dog bites man” story? Of course Oz is driven by business considerations. It’s syndicated, commercialized TV; by definition commercial considerations are, if not paramount, very, very important. The question is whether commercial considerations overruled science. Of course, The Dr. Oz Show being The Dr. Oz Show, I suspect we already know what the answer to that question is. The only real question is how much did commercial considerations rule? Of course, what hadn’t occurred to me is that there might be damning e-mails in the big Wikileaks release of Sony e-mails relevant to Dr. Oz, mainly because, although I knew Sony was one of the producers of Oz’s show, I just didn’t connect the dots.

In any case, Belluz gives one example showing that Oz is a driving force in pushing for deals:

In a January 2014 email, for instance, Dr. Oz reaches out to Michael Lynton, the CEO of Sony Entertainment, about his interest in wearable fitness and health tracking devices.

“I have been carefully following the wearable device market and am pretty close to consummating a longer term relationship, but just saw the piece below quoting Kaz Hirai [the president and CEO of Sony] and realized that Sony is moving into the space as well,” Oz writes in an email. “We should leverage the Sony-driven success of our TV show into other arenas where Sony thrives, like health hardware.”

Here is the complete text of the e-mail. Oz follows up, asking, “If you agree, how do you suggest we proceed? Could you jump start the process with an appropriate introduction to someone involved with the ‘Core’ initiative?” So what we have here, is Dr. Oz, first reaching out through his people, then jumping in the conversation himself, about in essence making a deal to have his show shill for Sony wearable devices, all in the name of “synergy.” I also can’t help but note from Oz’s mentioning that he’s “close to consummating a longer term relationship” that Oz is almost certainly going to Sony to see if he can get a better deal.

Perhaps the series of e-mails of most interest to me, though, more for curiosity than anything, was the series of e-mails discussing Dr. Oz’s appearance in front of Senator Claire McCaskill’s committee over his promotion of dubious dietary supplements as “miracles” and “fat burners” that—or so it is implied—let people lose weight without diet or exercise. As you might recall from when I wrote about it, at first I was concerned that Oz would be lobbed a bunch of softballs but then was satisfied that McCaskill (D-MO), wily old prosecutor that she was, basically mopped up the floor with Oz, embarrassing the hell out of him. At the time, I noted my suspicion that Dr. Oz didn’t see this coming because of his hubris. It turns out that that was more or less what happened.

For instance, in one e-mail, Denise Beaudoin, the legal and business affairs counsel to The Dr. Oz Show, notes:

And while the goal of the committee’s investigation is to protect the consumer against false claims and fraudulent advertising and all the extenuating billing problems AND they told us they think we have done more work on this than the FTC, we should still anticipate that someone on the committee, and likely some members of the media, will be critical of the show airing segments about these types of supplements in the 1st place. So while we are in a strong position and can appear as a great consumer advocate, it would be ill advised to believe this hearing or the news cycle that follows will be 100% free of criticism of Oz or the show. It’s also worth noting for the record, that Harpo’s counsel is not in favor of Oz’ participating, especially when he’s not legally obligated to do so. They do not see the value of getting involved unless compelled by subpoena because there’s always the potential for downside (no matter how slight). Sony’s counsel has yet to weigh in. For what it’s worth, I think the cost of not appearing could be more problematic for us because we have been so vocal about the problem on the show and we’ve gone so far as to ask our audience to get involved by reporting fraud to OzWatch, signing an online petition and writing letters to their state attorney general. We know this issue hurts our brand and we haven’t the real resources to combat the problem on our own. It will take legislative change to give us, the FTC or the FDA any real ability to go after the perpetrators, and that could happen as a result of this hearing.

Further down the e-mail chain, Keith Weaver, executive vice president for worldwide government affairs at Sony, notes:

Given his frustration, which was recently exampled on television where he visited a manufacturer of one of the products and asked them to stop using his name, Dr. Oz and the producers of the show would like to testify. Dr. Oz has not entered into a paid sponsorship arrangement to date, but would like to explore doing so in the future. We have apprised the appropriate parties of the risks associated with the future plans, as well as specific criticisms of Dr. Oz’s role in the national conversation about health that could emerge in the hearing or in subsequent coverage. All things considered, Dr. Oz is very comfortable addressing these topics and would like to proceed.

As Sony Pictures Television only distributes the DR. OZ show (it’s produced by an affiliate of HARPO entitled ZoCo), my understanding is that we have less control over how he chooses to respond. And, while an invitation is not a subpoena, it would be awkward for him to not respond favorably to this request.

Of course, I wrote about Dr. Oz’s highly cynical and ridiculous segment in which he “busted” a company using his words to endorse their product as though he were 60 MINUTES cornering a scammer. Yes, it was Oz portraying himself as a protector of the consumer, which to me was hilarious. And here we have discussions of what I always suspected to be the real reason why Oz was going after scammers using his name: He was planning on entering into commercial arrangements with companies offering health-related products and services and didn’t want his brand tarnished. Of course that’s what it was; you’d have to be incredibly naive to believe it was out of a pure desire to protect the public. Rather, it was to eliminate potential competitors and those who tarnish the Oz brand and potentially lower the amount of money Oz could ultimately make.

Particularly amusingly, as the e-mail exchange suggests, specifically the rest of the e-mail from Beaudoin, McCaskill did snooker Oz and his staff, inviting Oz to testify in front of her panel based on his then recent efforts to shut down supplement manufacturers using his name to sell their product. Then she sandbagged Oz. Clearly, I was wrong to be concerned in the days leading up to the hearing.

Not surprisingly, Oz’s staff is very concerned with Oz’s public face, in particular the perception that he peddles snake oil, so much so that when Dr. Oz was scheduled to do a speaking engagement for pay at Caesar’s Palace, in response to a request from Oz’s agent Sandy Kliman that Sony use Oz’s Facebook page to publicize the event and “drive ticket sales,” Sheraton Kalouria, chief marketing officer at Sony Pictures Television, wrote:

We feel we should not give the media who looks at Oz like snake oil salesman right now any fodder to further this perception.

He’s [Sandy Kliman] been told no. Is going to call me tomorrow to ask we reconsider.

Ouch. That one’s going to leave a mark.

Make no mistake about it. Dr. Oz has devolved from a brilliant and promising young academic surgeon 25 years ago into what he is today: America’s quack. Even the leadership at Sony seems to realize this.