If John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania Senate, hadn’t had a stroke earlier this year, the discourse about him and his opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, would surely be different. Most of the op-eds after last Wednesday’s hourlong debate focused on whether Fetterman did a good job; his stroke has left him with some speech and communication impairments, while Oz is far more camera-ready.
But the discussion around Fetterman’s recovery threatened to upstage the fact that Oz said a number of alarming things: When asked whether abortion should be banned, he said, “I want women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves.” It’s a position at odds with many of his fellow doctors: Both the American Medical Association and Physicians for Reproductive Health believe abortion should be legal nationwide.
Oz was equally adept at deflecting any of the moderators’ questions that didn’t suit him. When they asked about the claims that he hawked products that didn’t work on The Dr. Oz Show, his long-running daytime TV program that ended earlier this year, he replied: “The show did very well because it provided high-quality information,” he said. “John Fetterman’s approach to help is a dangerous one. He wants to socialize medicine. ... When you socialize medicine, you shut down access to health care.”
“I told people the truth,” he said about his show. “I’ll do the same as a senator.” (He also claimed to not have been paying any attention to Donald Trump’s recent and very noisy legal troubles with the DOJ, while also saying he’ll support Trump in a 2024 run.)
Oz knew how to hit his mark, face his light, and interrupt the moderators just enough to sneak in a few more lines after the bell rang. It was a performance that, coupled with the public hand-wringing over Fetterman’s health, made the race between them tighter (as of this publication, FiveThirtyEight had Oz polling just 1.4 points behind Fetterman) even though the candidates couldn’t be more different. Fetterman is Pennsylvania's lieutenant governor; Dr. Oz recommended magic weight loss pills to his national viewership and consequently had to testify to the governmental body he’s now hoping to sit on. During his campaign, Oz has often looked like an out-of-touch Hollywood elitist — and yet, a Republican! — who doesn’t know Pennsylvania as well as his opponent. After all, he moved from New Jersey in order to run.
But the strange thing about Dr. Oz isn’t that some of the public now view him as a craven snake-oil salesperson redirecting his energy from reality television to politics. The strange thing is that his career didn’t start out that way at all.
Before Oprah, Dr. Mehmet Oz, raised outside Philadelphia by Turkish immigrants, was a surgeon with an admirable resume. According to a 1995 New York Times profile, he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, and he was the class chair and school president at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school. While doing his residency at Columbia-Presbyterian in New York, he won the Blakemore Prize, given annually to the “best body of research” done by a medical resident, four times. (It was at Columbia where his research experiments apparently killed more than 300 dogs.) He even holds a few patents for inventing devices used in heart surgeries.
But what’s any of that compared to a few gigs on Oprah?
Oz’s 2004 Oprah appearance was the first time he ever appeared on television. He arrived with a cooler full of organs, $14 scrubs, and a total lack of awareness about the show’s influence. “I wasn’t really clear on this Oprah phenomenon,” he said in 2009, at a time when Oprah was netting 5.7 million daily viewers. Through his many Oprah segments, Oz made our unknowable insides a little more understandable; he talked about what your poop should look like (s-shaped), whether you can be allergic to sperm (you sure can!), and colon cancer screenings. His advice was accurate, approachable, and useful — daytime television isn’t a terrible avenue for warnings that the physical symptoms of a heart attack may differ for women, for example. All in all, Oz ended up doing around 88 segments with Winfrey before moving on to his own flagship program, The Dr. Oz Show, in 2009.
It’s easy to blame Winfrey for saddling us, an unknowing public, with the scourge that is Dr. Oz. But it’s not like she knew what he was going to turn into. (It’s worth noting that Winfrey has been pretty mum about Oz’s Senate run.) When Oz first went from a private citizen who happened to be a doctor to a public figure who was once a doctor, it seemed like his healthcare ethos changed, too. Once The Dr. Oz Show premiered, the pivot was clear. His work became less about health and more about wellness, a word that can mean absolutely nothing and also whatever you want it to. A 2014 BMJ study randomly selected 40 episodes of The Dr. Oz Show, as well as fellow daytime health and wellness show The Doctors, and evaluated all the recommendations made. “For recommendations in The Dr. Oz Show,” the study says, “evidence supported 46%, contradicted 15%, and was not found for 29%.” The study concluded that “recommendations made on medical talk shows often lack adequate information” and that “the public should be skeptical” about them.
His work became less about health and more about wellness, a word that can mean absolutely nothing and also whatever you want it to.
Dr. Oz chalked up 13 seasons between 2009 and its finale in January 2022. Of the 835 episodes, a little over 30% included content about weight loss, diets geared toward weight loss, weight loss “tricks” and supplements, or “obesity.” The remaining episodes are a veritable cornucopia of reality TV bullshit, like a segment about whether there’s arsenic in apple juice (no, there isn’t) and an interview with the Tiger King, for some reason. Why was a retired cardiothoracic surgeon interviewing Keke Palmer about anxiety? Why were there episodes about “social media pranks” and multiple discussions about chicken nuggets?
Maybe most absurd is that, throughout his 13 seasons, Oz peppered in a handful of episodes about anorexia, women “dying to be thin,” and interviews with famous people about their disordered eating. Hard to imagine why women feel so much societal pressure to be thin when they’re watching episodes titled “How to Get Your Fat to Eat Itself” or “Fasting in Real Life: Can a Mini Fast Help You Lose Unwanted Fat?”
While Oprah certainly had a focus on weight loss and tips 'n' tricks for getting skinnier, The Dr. Oz Show often highlighted supposedly easy but actually impossible ways to lose weight. “This miracle pill can burn fat fast,” Oz said in one segment. In another, he promoted “the missing piece of the weight loss puzzle” in the form of supplements: sage leaf tea at breakfast, alpha-lipoic acid at lunch, maitake mushroom extract with your snack, and the “satiating supplement” known as glucomannan at dinner. (This last one, to be clear, is just fiber.)
By 2014, Oz’s flimsy recommendations turned him from just another television doctor into a Senate subcommittee target. Oz was called to testify in a hearing about “protecting consumers from false and deceptive advertising of weight loss products,” and Oz, though not the only proponent of dubious fixes, was certainly a symbolic figure for the Senate to criticize. “People want to believe they can take an itty-bitty pill to push fat out of their body,” Sen. Claire McCaskill said to Oz. “I know you know how much power you have. I know you know that. You are very powerful, and with power comes a great deal of responsibility.”
Oz could’ve kept making his show in peace. No one was stopping him.
It was the first real, public, and lengthy dressing-down of Oz, beyond late-night TV jokes. “Let me be very clear on the following,” he said in his written testimony. “I do not endorse any products or receive any money from any products that are sold. I have never allowed my image to be used in any ad. If you see my name, face, or show in any type of ad, email, or other circumstance, it’s illegal.”
The statement was jarring, coming from someone who had devoted hours and hours to discussing and promoting pills and cures. Maybe, for Oz, it just made good television — viewers will undoubtedly tune in to hear a doctor tell them how to lose the last 15 pounds they can’t seem to shake before the holidays roll around.
Nothing really happened to Oz after his Senate testimony. One of his guests, Lindsey Duncan, a supposed nutritionist, eventually settled with the FTC for $9 million for false and misleading marketing practices. But while Oz’s reputation was a little tattered, The Dr. Oz Show continued for another eight years.
Oz could’ve kept making his show in peace. No one was stopping him, even after the subcommittee tore into his practices. But it seems that being an influential television figure wasn’t enough. The only thing more powerful than a man in a suit on television, maybe, is a man in a suit on television transformed into a politician.
There’s something darkly hysterical about the fact that Oz, a television doctor (now politician) has aligned himself with Donald Trump, a television entrepreneur (now politician). It’s especially absurd since Trump denied the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic until it was, frankly, all too late; so much of Oz’s stated platform is about his disappointment in how politicians handled the pandemic, without really acknowledging that Trump was the politician in charge during the pandemic’s devastating early stages.
“Covid-19 became an excuse for government and elite thinkers who controlled the means of communication, especially social media and our major news agencies, to suspend debate,” Oz, a man who had a nationally syndicated talk show for 11 years, stated on his campaign website. It seems like Oz was disappointed in the lack of support for experimental COVID treatments. “Dissenting opinions from leading scholars, even Nobel Laureates, were cancelled and ridiculed so their ideas could not be disseminated,” reads his website. “I tried to fund clinical trials to re-purpose an already widely used drug for possible benefits against Covid-19, but they were banned. Instead, the government mandated policies that caused unnecessary suffering.” He doesn’t mention the name of the drug, but in September it was reported that Oz owned shares of a company that supplies hydroxychloroquine, which you might remember was the treatment Trump erroneously suggested would work against COVID; meanwhile, Oz pushed for more research into it as a COVID treatment.
Otherwise, Oz’s political leanings are pretty typical for your average Republican. He wants to overturn regulations on natural gas and oil. He loves his guns and he doesn't love China. “You’ve seen ads lying about me,” Oz said in a March campaign ad called “Fight the Establishment.” “Yes, I worked in TV, which taught me how to fight the woke media. … You know who else learned in Hollywood? The two greatest presidents in modern history.” The ad flashes a photo of Ronald Reagan and another of Trump.
There’s a bit of a push-pull in Oz’s campaign leveraging his television experience; it gives him name recognition, but it’s also hard to pretend you’re not an elitist Hollywood figure when you essentially are. And what made him good at daytime television in the first place makes him a hard sell as a candidate: He’s condescending, clearly thinks he knows more than the person whose vote he wants, and perpetually moralizes about health and wellness to an audience who might consider him out of touch with Pennsylvania’s working class.
Who puts asparagus on a veggie platter?
The crudités platter fumble was maybe the best example of Oz’s best-known qualities turning against him. In an attempt to talk about rising food costs and inflation back in April, Oz visited a Pennsylvania grocery store to buy ingredients for “crudités.” The first knock: calling it anything other than a veggie tray. The next: calling the grocery store “Wegner’s” instead of “Redner’s,” its actual name. He then proceeded to fill his arms with an odd, unrealistic cornucopia of produce: broccoli that he claimed was $2 a head (it was actually $2 per pound), organic asparagus, around 15 carrots, premade guacamole, fresh salsa. “Guys, that’s $20 for crudités and that doesn’t include the tequila,” he says at the end of the video. “That’s outrageous. We’ve got Joe Biden to thank for this.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to blame Joe Biden for a lot of things, but Oz’s criticism just didn’t make any sense, and ultimately fell flat. He seemed just as elitist as he accused the current president of being. Who puts asparagus on a veggie platter?
In addition, Oz is at a disadvantage when it comes to a major outreach tool: the internet. Oz’s campaign online has been bumpy and clumsy. Fetterman, on the other hand, knows how to weaponize his opponent’s inability to connect with constituents; he deployed Jersey Shore’s greatest gift, Snooki, to remind Oz “you’ll be back home in Jersey soon” and responded to a poorly photoshopped image of Fetterman with Bernie Sanders with a purposefully simplistic image that read “graphic design is my passion.” Just a couple of weeks before the election, Fetterman launched Fettermemes.com, a small library of video clips featuring Oz: “Dr. Oz Falling Into a Pool” or “Dr. Oz Jammin’” or “Dr. Oz Dancing Around With Pompoms.” They’re all pretty funny.
Yet the debate was a reminder of what Oz has always done best: speak onscreen to an anonymous audience. He looked better in a suit than Fetterman; he’s more of a television pro. He’s used to giving pithy, grand-theory advice to his audience, stuff that is bombastic enough to seduce viewers (miracle weight loss bean!) and general enough to speak to anyone.
What is a politician if not someone who prescribes solutions, some unlikely and some impossible, to an audience who just desperately wants things to be better?
Oz has taken great pains to get the voter to think of him as inherently trustworthy, uninterested in the power granted through the job he’s actively lobbying for, and invested in their physical and emotional well-being. He talked about meeting a woman at a Beaver County fair who was afraid of inflation and about how Fetterman got his house from a family member for $1. (This is true, but Oz’s in-laws did the exact same thing.) “I’m a surgeon,” Oz said. “Not a politician.”
But during the debate, what you saw from Oz was smarm. A half-smile on daytime television plays markedly differently than a half-smile in a debate. On daytime TV, it can be perceived as warm and friendly, inviting and approachable. In a debate, while your opponent is recovering from a stroke, it can appear sneering and obnoxious.
Still, based on the debate and the ever-tightening margins between Oz and Fetterman, it’s clear that the election is still anyone’s game, with just a week and change to go before the midterms. And Oz was built for American politics. He spent his entire television career working toward this moment. What is a politician if not someone who prescribes solutions, some unlikely and some impossible, to an audience who just desperately wants things to be better? “[Fetterman] hurt us. I’ll heal us,” Oz said in an August campaign ad. “Doctors fix big things. I fixed hearts and fought for every last one.” Based on the recent past, we know that the proposed solutions don’t have to be good. There’s no real requirement to be practical or correct or kind or fair. No wonder Oz eventually found his way here; he’s been doing the exact same thing for 20 years. ●
Correction: John Fetterman is lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. A previous version of this story misstated his position.