Upon learning late Thursday that Oprah Winfrey had endorsed Democrat John Fetterman over Republican Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania’s crucial U.S. Senate race, a colleague asked, “Did she acknowledge her role in making Oz a celebrity? ‘I was wrong’ might be helpful.” As a woman who had Oprah fandom thrust upon her at a young age, I knew the answer was “no” without even looking. While the “Queen of All Media” is a national treasure who often delivers in ways no other celebrity can, frustrating contradictions are also a core part of the Oprah brand.
As Oz gained momentum in recent weeks, there was an uptick in public pleas for Oprah to come to Democrats’ rescue by endorsing Fetterman. While she started campaigning for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in October, the chances of her coming out against Oz, whose TV career she launched and sustained for many years, seemed slim. Back in December, Oz claimed, “I asked her to stay out. Don’t support me because, if you get involved in any way, you’ll get hurt, and I don’t want my friends hurt.” That same month, Oprah signaled that she intended to do just that with this statement to New York:
One of the great things about our democracy is that every citizen can decide to run for public office. Mehmet Oz has made that decision. And now it’s up to the residents of Pennsylvania to decide who will represent them.
But then, on November 3, Oprah proved that her passion for surprising people hasn’t faded by endorsing Fetterman — though not quite in the way many Democrats had been hoping for. On Thursday evening, she hosted “A Virtual Voting Conversation,” in which she and community leaders discussed the importance of voting in the midterms. Toward the end of the conversation, she mentioned that she supports Fetterman before rattling off the names of other Democratic candidates she’d theoretically vote for.
“You mentioned Pennsylvania,” Oprah said on the call. At the start “of this midterm campaign, I said it was up to the citizens of Pennsylvania … But I will tell you all this, but if I lived in Pennsylvania, I would have already cast my vote for John Fetterman for many reasons.”
Oz owes so much to Oprah that he had to be gracious in his own statement on the endorsement. “Doctor Oz loves Oprah and respects the fact that they have different politics. He believes we need more balance and less extremism in Washington,” Oz spokeswoman Brittany Yanick told Politico.
Perhaps Oprah will pull out all the stops this weekend, showing up at a Pennsylvania rally, shouting out “John Fettermaaaaaan!” as only she can, and denouncing Oz as a snake-oil salesman. But for many years, people have been calling on Oprah to apologize for the quackery she brought into the American mainstream — from Dr. Phil allegedly exploiting guests suffering from addiction to Jenny McCarthy promoting the false claim that vaccines cause autism — and she never has. An audio-only plug for Fetterman that doesn’t mention Oz’s name and came after more than 850,000 Pennsylvanians already cast their ballots may be the best Democrats can hope for.
Many social-media users have argued Oprah doesn’t owe anybody a mea culpa, much less a political endorsement, for potentially putting Oz in the U.S. Senate. She’s not a politician, plenty of other people in the entertainment industry helped him spread dubious medical information, and she had no idea he’d become an anti-abortion, anti-gun-regulation climate-change skeptic when he started making regular appearances on her daytime program nearly two decades ago.
But Oprah didn’t have Oz on her show just to chat about poop shapes a handful of times. According to Newsweek, Oz made 62 appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show between 2006 and 2011 and was featured regularly in her various other projects including her Sirius XM radio station, Ask Oprah’s All-Stars, and O, the Oprah Magazine. His spinoff program, The Dr. Oz Show, which ran for 13 seasons, was co-produced by Winfrey’s Harpo Productions. Even after Oz was grilled at a Senate subcommittee hearing for plugging miracle supplements and the Federal Trade Commission found that Oz’s producers barely did any research before having him plug green coffee beans as a “magic weight-loss cure” on air, Oprah kept working with Oz on various projects.
Anyone waiting for Oprah to disavow the harmful pseudoscience she’s promoted during her career or deliver a political message exactly the way they want is just setting themselves up for disappointment. “When people show you who they are, believe them”: It’s one of many good lessons I learned in my youth by way of … Oprah Winfrey. Here she is discussing the concept at a 1997 pajama party with Maya Angelou.
Oprah has told us who she is many times. She’s a trailblazing entrepreneur who spouts words of wisdom, sheds light on mental-health issues, delivers incredible TV moments, and irresponsibly promoted dangerous quacks for many decades and isn’t going to apologize for or acknowledge it. If we still expect anything different, maybe that’s on us.
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