Oprah is beloved. Her fans love her. Stedman loves her. Even President Trump loves her.
The science community does not love her.
Oprah Winfrey has had indisputable influence over public health knowledge. Millions of people watched Winfrey every day for decades. She has a monthly magazine with her face on the cover. She has had a cable television channel, a satellite radio station, and a sweeping online presence. But at times, Winfrey has given a platform to people who promote medical treatments and health advice that aren’t based in evidence.
Now, amid mostly theoretical talk of a possible 2020 presidential run for Winfrey, she faces fresh criticism of her guests over the years. She connected a cancer patient to “junk science,” a Washington Post analysis says. She promoted charlatans on her show, according to Slate. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee put out a statement Tuesday attacking Winfrey for “giving a platform to anti-vaccination campaigners and other dangerous health quackery.”
Here’s a look at some of Winfrey’s less-than-scientific guests.
Winfrey has proudly claimed that she launched the career of Phillip “Dr. Phil” McGraw, who has gone on to become the highest-paid daytime TV personality. He earned $79 million last year, according to Forbes.
But a recent STAT-Boston Globe investigation found that while McGraw presents himself as a crusader for recovery who rescues people from their addictions, his show has put at risk the health of some of those guests it claims to help.
One guest struggling with alcoholism said he was left unsupervised with a bottle of vodka in his dressing room. Then someone handed him a Xanax, he said, telling him it would “calm his nerves.” Another guest said she was directed by a show staff member to an open-air drug market to find heroin for her detoxing niece.
The investigation also found that carefully placed promotions on the show are a financial opportunity for a new venture involving McGraw and his son, Jay. An addiction recovery program the McGraws launched this year comes with an enticing offer: Buy their self-help video product and you could land a valuable spot on the top-rated “Dr. Phil” show.
In 2009, Winfrey gave Jenny McCarthy — a TV personality who has been fiercely criticized for her stance on the relationship between autism and vaccines — a blog on her website. McCarthy has said her son, Evan, has autism.
There’s a wide body of gold-standard studies that support the scientific consensus that vaccines don’t cause autism. Vaccines also prevent between 2 and 3 million deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization.
In a blog post on Winfrey’s website, McCarthy, who is not a doctor, shares with readers the “biomedical steps” she has taken to treat her son’s autism. Among them: a diet free of gluten, casein, sugar, and artificial food coloring, as well as anti-fungal medications.
“Evan started to come out of autism completely after I killed CANDIDA!!!” she writes, referring to a type of fungus that can be found on the skin. The blog post on Winfrey’s site also gave McCarthy a platform to answer medical questions from readers, including questions on vaccinations, diet, and allergy testing.
Winfrey frequently turned to Deepak Chopra, a well-known, incredibly wealthy figure in alternative medicine. He’s spoken with Winfrey over the years on meditation, positive thinking, and reversing or preventing aging.
“Everybody believes that aging is irreversible. That’s also a misconception,” Chopra said in a 1993 interview with Winfrey. His tips: remove toxins from the body, get rid of stress, change your environment, and increase antioxidants in your diet.
“You can actually reverse the biological markers of aging,” Chopra said, adding that people can increase their lifespan by 30 to 50 years with such tactics, which aren’t based in science. He pointed to “the hydra,” a genus of tiny creatures found in fresh water that don’t appear to age, but which also don’t have a brain or muscles.
“I got it,” Oprah said.
And while the interview ran decades ago, it’s been promoted recently. Winfrey’s OWN network published the clip on its YouTube channel in November 2017.
One of Winfrey’s longtime regular guests, Dr. Mehmet Oz has built his own medical television empire. Oz has impressive medical credentials: He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania medical school and taught as a professor in Columbia University’s department of surgery.
But he’s also come under fire for embracing fringe scientific views and hosting questionable experts on his show.
He used his show to promote a product called green coffee bean extract as a weight-loss “miracle.” The product was peddled by supplement marketer and frequent show guest Lindsey Duncan, who had a financial stake in the companies making the extract. The study that Duncan cited as evidence was ultimately retracted, and an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission ensued. Duncan agreed to pay $9 million to settle with consumers who’d purchased the product.
In a Senate hearing on consumer protections in June 2014, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told Oz she was concerned that he was “melding medical advice, news, and entertainment in a way that harms consumers.”
Winfrey has been criticized for shilling a self-help approach dubbed “The Secret,” which claims that positive thinking can cure physical illnesses, among other problems. And in case thinking good thoughts isn’t enough, there’s also “The Secret” book available for purchase or “The Secret” film available to watch, both of which raked in millions thanks, in part, to promotion on Winfrey’s show.
Winfrey found herself in a controversy when a viewer told the host that “The Secret” had inspired her to heal her cancer on her own, instead of undergoing surgery and chemotherapy as her doctors suggested.
The sitcom star turned anti-aging fanatic touted her secrets to staying young on Winfrey’s show back in 2009. Her routine included popping dozens of vitamins and supplements daily, rubbing progesterone and estrogen creams on her body, and injecting estrogen directly into her vagina.
There isn’t any evidence to support those strategies as a way to stave off or reversing aging — but that didn’t seem to sway the host.
“Many people write Suzanne off as a quackadoo,” Winfrey was quoted as saying at the time. “But she just might be a pioneer.”