Dr. Phil had much to say about the coronavirus lockdown the other night on Fox News.
“Look, the fact of the matter is we have people dying – 45,000 people a year die from automobile accidents, 480,000 from cigarettes,” the talk-show host said Thursday, “but we don’t shut the country down for that. But yet we’re doing it for this?”
Social media quickly erupted with fury and derision as viewers pointed out the hopeless apples-to-orangeness of his argument: Cars and tobacco aren’t exactly communicable diseases; and both, in fact, have inspired extensive government regulations to limit injuries and death. (The TV shrink was also widely mocked for making a comparison to swimming-pool deaths using a bogus statistic inflated by a factor of nearly 100.)
But the interview raised deeper concerns: Why was Dr. Phil – not a medical doctor but a clinical psychologist with no special knowledge about the politics, science or economics of the shutdown – on a TV news channel talking about the topic in the first place?
Like Drs. Drew and Oz before him, Phil McGraw was on TV, it seems, largely because he’s a articulate, charismatic and well-known TV personality. But none of that amounts to expertise on this particular topic. In fact, in recent TV appearances to discuss the pandemic, fellow celebrity doctors Drew Pinsky and Mehmet Oz have offered commentary based on a loose or seemingly wobbly understanding of the crisis – arguably doing more to undermine public understanding than enhance it.
All three have since walked back their statements. Pinsky apologized for last month dismissing coronavirus as no more serious than influenza; Oz said Thursday he “misspoke” this week when he casually urged reopening schools at a “cost [of] 2 to 3% in terms of total mortality.” And on Friday, McGraw acknowledged that he had used an inflated number of drowning deaths and that his comparisons to smoking and driving weren’t quite on point, either. “Yes, I know that those are not contagious. So, probably bad examples.”
Television rewards the ability to speak in sound bites, and to opine confidently and comfortably on camera, regardless of expertise. Even before television, the practice of elevating the famous to presumed expert status was a long and checkered practice; advertisements have traded on famous names for hundreds of years, whether or not the celebrity had any special knowledge or experience. More recently, cable TV networks have employed pundits, including journalists, with thin credentials to opine about the news of the day, usually about political topics.
Celebrities being asked to opine on topics far out of the depth happens so frequently that there’s now a social-media shorthand for it: “Where’s Ja Rule?” It’s a callback to 2001 when the rapper was thrust before cameras and interviewed about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, inspiring a Dave Chappelle joke: “I don’t want to dance. I’m scared to death. I have questions that Ja Rule may not have the answers to.” When CNN interviewed Stephen King last month about a new book, he talked about how real life is just as scary as his books and was then asked to comment on the government’s pandemic response and the Florida governor’s thinking.
The issue takes on a special coloration when the topic under discussion is literally a matter of life and death and when speaking out of one’s depth can have serious consequences.
The pandemic has exacerbated a more general problem of confirmation bias, or seeking evidence to validate a preconceived notion, on TV, said Dr. Henry I. Miller, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco and a philosopher on scientific and technological issues.
“The cable networks, in particular, troll for pseudo-experts – some credentialed, some not – who express viewpoints that reflect the biases of the network and/or interviewer” who have booked them, he said in an email. Among the most egregious examples, Miller said, are the talking heads who’ve endorsed drugs such as hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for covid-19 in the absence of reliable clinical trials demonstrating its safety and effectiveness.
The problem, of course, is that there aren’t a lot of experts about the novel coronavirus – because of its very novelty. No one knows, for example, what drugs might be effective and safe in fighting it; trials are still ongoing. No one knows about the long-term effects of a coronavirus infection; that will take many months, if not years, of study. And no one knows whether infected people who survive have immunity, can be reinfected or can infect others; there’s no solid science on that yet.
In some respects, that makes the coronavirus pandemic a breaking news story, albeit a slow-moving one, in which both authorities and journalists feel their way through an event in which the details are still unclear. Such circumstances leave reporters with an unsatisfying option – saying that no one knows.
The most credentialed coronavirus experts – Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, for example – can do only so many TV shows before the demands of 24/7 news and discussion gives way to people with less expertise.
Or not much expertise at all. CNN, for example, featured Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, during a “town hall” broadcast on Thursday designed to answer viewer questions about the virus. The Zuckerbergs talked about the efforts of Facebook and their charitable foundation to deal with the pandemic, but they took no questions, and it otherwise wasn’t clear why they were interviewed.
A CNN representatives did not respond to questions about the segment. Fox News spokeswoman Carly Shanahan said Phil McGraw and Mehmet Oz have been guests on Fox News and are not paid contributors. She declined to further comment. (Sources at Fox said, however, that McGraw was booked to discuss mental-health issues and that his controversial comments were unexpected).
Nevertheless, Miller said the professional credentials of TV guests – usually shorthanded in cable news chyrons – often suggest more expertise than actually exists. He mentioned TV interviews within the past week with a former federal appointee who predicted that a coronavirus vaccine would be available within 12 months. But the former official, Miller said, is a “nonscientist” who was not involved in reviewing drug and vaccine applications.
All of the networks employ doctors as medical correspondents, which does bring additional depth of knowledge to the reporting. Dr. Jennifer Ashton, a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist, is ABC’s chief medical correspondent and regularly appears on “Good Morning America” and “World News Tonight.” Fox News employs five doctors as contributors. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon by training, is CNN’s chief medical correspondent; he frequently interviews other medical specialists to report on subjects beyond his own expertise.
“I do feel an obligation – with this story in particular,” Gupta told The Washington Post Magazine in a recent interview. “It’s going to be one of the most important things that happens, from a medical and health standpoint, to most of us in our lifetimes. I spent a long time hopefully gaining people’s trust through other reporting and other stories that I’ve done so that, when I now tell them something about this, which is honest – hopeful, but honest – that they listen.”