Oprah sells mind-body snake oil to the masses

Published on
June 8, 2009

The June 8 edition of Newsweek has a must-read story about the world's most influential celebrity.

Weston Kosova and Pat Wingert meticulously detail how Oprah Winfrey uses her show, her magazine and her Web site as a platform for some completely loony health advice, including needle-and-thread facelifts, avoiding vaccines, daily hormone injections into the vagina to stop aging and thinking positively as an alternative to surgery.

There is no doubt that some alternative therapies have real benefits, and more study needs to be done in this area. But, as Newsweek correctly frames the story, Oprah is a culture-shifting institution, and she should act responsibly when it comes to putting her name behind health advice.

The New York Times has done a great job documenting some of Oprah's biggest medical advice missteps, but I think Newsweek has broken new ground here by doing four crucial things. Read this piece and then follow these steps the next time you want to truth check an organization, a company, a pundit or an all-media demigod like Oprah. (Full disclosure: Antidote once saw Oprah on Oscar Sunday at The Ivy restaurant in Los Angeles and walked by her table, unnecessarily, three times.)

Connect the multimedia dots. Kosova and Wingert recognized that Oprah is a multi-platform presence, and they drew a triangle of content through the show, the magazine and the Web site to paint a clear picture of what she peddles with her influence. For example, they point out that on her show, Oprah allowed some doctors to question claims by Suzanne Somers that the use of "bioidentical hormone" treatments - like skin creams and vaginal injections - were risk-free. In her magazine, she told readers that she had made the leap herself to bioidenticals and "felt the veil lift."

Go straight to the peddlers themselves. The Newsweek reporters followed up with people who had given what appeared to be dangerous medical advice on Oprah's show only to find out that they had had second thoughts (perhaps the moment they received a call from Newsweek). Dr. Christiane Northrup, a regular on Oprah, advocated on air that women avoid being vaccinated for human papilloma virus (HPV), saying that some women had died from it. But when Newsweek called, she "conceded that she isn't certain that anyone has died from the vaccine. And she didn't mean to leave the impression that women should avoid it."

Find the right science. Model-turned-actress Jenny McCarthy, who has an autistic son, has used Oprah's show and Web site to advocate that children not be vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella. Kosova and Wingert sum up the known evidence clearly and concisely, writing, "researchers have not found a link between the vaccines and autism. Here is what we do know: before vaccinations, thousands of children died or got sick each year from measles, mumps and rubella."

Go backstage. Here is where Newsweek barely scratched the surface. The reporters write a little about Oprah's on-air medical allies, including Dr. Mehmet Oz, but they don't make it clear that Oprah, as stunningly bright and savvy as she is, relies on her staff to pick guests, identify trends and, surely, write most of the content for her magazine and Web site. One can argue that anything with Oprah's name attached traces back to her, but someone of her stature should be treated more like Enron or Countrywide. We need to find out who the real decisionmakers are behind the scenes and probe their ties to the products and treatments being promoted using Oprah's name.