A few years ago, I read a book titled “Whores of the Court” by Margaret A. Hagen, a professor of Psychology at Boston University. Professor Hagen presented an argument regarding the dangers of using psychiatric and psychological experts during criminal trials, particularly in cases involving charges against defendants for child abuse. Though it was met with mixed reviews, the book did offer some very solid examples of how competing experts can persuade juries in all directions, often confusing them in their role as finders of fact.
Do a search on Amazon for books about expert testimony, and you’ll get thousands of results. You’ll find that a good number of them will help just about anyone become an expert-for-hire. I’m actually surprised that no one has written “Expert Testimony for Dummies” yet, but some are close. This phenomenon has reached outside the courtroom and found it’s way into the media, in ever increasing numbers. Every network has more than their share. Some of these television experts, however, have gone beyond merely entering into some grey areas, and may actually be doing more harm than good.
Television experts are nothing new, but their numbers have recently sky rocketed. Everyone with a couple of letters after their names is putting themselves out there, spewing advice and opinion that becoming more suspect and less trustworthy. Some are still reliable, but they are becoming a dying breed. Those of us who once thought that the doctor was always right are now starting to question if this new crop knows, or even cares, about what they are telling us.
Phil McGraw came upon his fame and fortune because he was hired to be a jury consultant for Ms. Winfrey during a lawsuit brought against her by some people in the beef industry. She was impressed with his work, particularly after the jury found in her favor. When I first saw Dr. Phil McGraw, as a regular guest on Oprah, I thought he was refreshing and honest. His style of homespun advice sounded pretty fair and reasonable, particularly when he offered his “expertise” to families in crisis.
After a number of guest appearances, Phil became one of Oprah’s favorite things and his future was set. With his own show, and a five day a week schedule to fill, things have changed. He expanded his role as expert to subjects like diet and exercise, and has penned over a dozen books as a way of further spreading his message. He is still an affable man but he just doesn’t resonate in the same way he once did. He, like all television personalities, has ascended to a new role, and the doctor is now a star.
Partially due to his success, other have tried to follow suit, all of them claiming to be experts in something, hoping for similar results. One of these experts is Dr. Drew Pinsky. Dr. Drew has spent his professional life, in equal parts, as a media personality and a physician. While still in medical school, he did commentary on a radio program during a segment called “Ask the Surgeon”. This segued into another part of the program “Loveline”, which became a national program, at first on radio and then onto MTV, where he co-hosted with Adam Carolla. His career in media grew, while he continued his medical career. The most widely known of his television shows include “Celebrity Rehab”, and the HLN program “Dr. Drew”, which premiered in early 2011.
HLN is CNN’s version of the National Enquirer. The hosts of programs on HLN know that they will always be the bridesmaid, never the bride. There is more than a small dose of sensationalism in their style of reporting. They chase stories in paparazzi fashion. How can we forget Jane-Velez Mitchell running after Jose Baez and his team, through the streets of Orlando, during the Casey Anthony trial? Nancy “Hey, y’all, I’m a lawyer” Grace often looks like a junkyard dog when she is trying to get her points across. I’ll bet she’s made a fortune uttering the words “Tot Mom”, over and over. They are warriors and neither of these women want to hear anyone’s opinion if it doesn’t mesh perfectly with their own. Guests who dare to disagree are met with derision and, sometimes, mysteriously disappear during commercial breaks.
Dr. Drew appears to be doing his level best to fit right in with them. He wants to be Sanjay Gupta, but he’s been relegated to his own corner of the market. His work in the medical field and on television has made him the go-to guy on addiction. If there is a story involving drugs, alcohol and celebrities, he is on it. The list doesn’t end there, because he strong opinions about the cast of “Jersey Shore” and their inability to wean themselves off of tanning beds. It seems, however, at least from where I’m sitting, that the price of fame, again, is one’s reputation, character and professionalism. He’s saying a lot of things, but not all of them make much sense. I guess, given a 24 hour news cycle and a shot at stardom, that happens.
He has started to become more of a hindrance than a help for some people, and that’s getting a lot of attention. His remarks have come under a great deal of fire, from viewers and other media sources. His own blog is filled with angry responses to some comments he has made about Charlie Sheen, Michael Jackson and, now, Whitney Houston. Perhaps more disturbing are those who are just as ardent in their defense of Dr. Pinsky, and slam those who criticize him, on that very same blog. I’ve read some of them and it certainly doesn’t sound like a place that is open to any honest dialogue.
Since Ms. Houston’s passing, Dr. Drew has made it his mission to tell us how very dangerous prescription drugs, and the doctors who prescribe them, can be. Certainly, there are inherent dangers in just about everything we ingest or do. There are a lot of people who will abuse just about anything. There should be a clear line, however, between cautioning people and fear-mongering. We know it can be done – we’ve seen it.
During Dr. Conrad Murray’s trial, an anesthesiologist, Dr. Stephen Shafer, took the stand as a witness for the State. He explained that part of his reason for being there was that he was appalled at Dr. Murray’s actions, while part of him wanted to assuage his patients’ fears about anesthesia and, in particular, the use of the drug Propofol. He said that his patients had expressed questions and concerns about their safety while under the drug, during surgical procedures. His careful and reasoned explanation did much to calm those fears, and certainly did a lot of damage to Dr. Murray’s defense. The TV experts applauded him for his efforts, yet, apparently, learned nothing.
Dr. Drew is also in the habit out of diagnosing celebrities’ psychological and/or personality disorders, based solely on what he has seen or read in the media. This cavalier form of diagnosis has drawn criticism from people like Tom Cruise and Lindsay Lohan, who were the targets of his public pronouncements about their issues, without benefit of personal examination. Yes, I know, we all think that they’re a little nuts, but we’re not on TV, painting them with broad brushes and relying on nothing more than RadarOnline. To support his claims, he relies on his own book, “The Mirror Effect”, in which he describes the personalities, mostly narcissistic, of celebrities. His findings brought him to conclude, by using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, that most celebrities average about an 18 out of 40. He, by the way, scored a 16. (You can take the test yourself, if you want to. It’s on a number of sites. I’m not revealing my score.)
During Charlie Sheen’s “let’s watch a guy go crazy” tour, Dr. Drew added his own pearls of wisdom to the conversation. Again, from the comfort of his own home and armed, I guess, with a few issues of People magazine, Dr. Drew concluded that Sheen was in a “manic state”. He went on to say that Sheen had made a good point in rejecting both the need for and the success of the 12-step program. Not only had he never met Sheen, crossing ethical boundaries right there, but with those remarks, Dr. Drew managed to upset a whole lot of folks who had found help with this recovery program. He, apparently, had also done a complete turnaround regarding his own, previously steadfast, faith in the 12-step program. In two prior and separate statements surrounding addiction and recovery, Dr. Drew first said that the possibility of recovery does not exist without the program, and secondly, that it is essential and necessary to the treatment of addiction. How much trust can you have in a guy who alters his views based on Charlie Sheen’s?
Just like his female colleagues at HLN, Dr. Drew is not one to allow disparate views on his topic du jour. He, like they, surrounds himself with sycophants who extol his virtue and expertise. Often, his guests include those who are considered success stories from their time on “Celebrity Rehab”. To be certain, there have been successes from this program. Some are still clean and sober, long after their particular season of “Celebrity Rehab” has ended.
The question remains, however, what one can claim success for, given the fact that this is a reality show, and that the participants are, for the most part, in the entertainment industry. There have been those who lobbied, with the help of publicists – a la Michaele Salahi – to get on the show. There have also been celebrities, like Gary Busey, who would only appear if it was on their terms – Busey wanted to be shown in the role of mentor, not as an addict. It is difficult to separate what is real, given what we now know about reality television, and what is, in part, performance. We’ve seen how the presence of cameras can make people act. Now, add in a few movie or television roles to the participants’ resumes, and we don’t know who or what we can believe.
We listen to doctors when they give us their expert opinion and advice, and we want to trust them. More often than not, our lives depend on what they tell us. Most of them, like Dr. Shafer, are competent, professional individuals. Some, like Dr. Drew and others, are going beyond being provocative, with potentially serious consequences. Those who provide expert testimony in court can sway a jury and, perhaps, bring people to justice, or ruin people’s lives. Television doctors have a much greater audience and, therefor, a greater potential to influence discourse by providing us with useful and real information. We viewers are trying to be the finders of fact. I think that those with the much larger stage should realize the part they are playing and the power they wield. Maybe they should just stop shouting at us for a minute and listen to themselves.