Topic: Professions & Institutions
The Ethics Verdict on Dr. Phil's Spears Encounter
The Spears family has become, like the late Anna Nicole Smith, a sort of human ethics Bermuda Triangle, plunging unwary travelers into terrifying ethical controversies. The latest to succumb to the curse is "Dr. Phil" McGraw, the avuncular TV therapist whose sage advice to abusive parents, cheating spouses, addicted boyfriends and wayward teens has made him rich as well as enough of a popular culture icon to justify a cameo role in "Scary Movie 4, " in which he sawed off his own foot. After Britney Spears recently found herself under psychiatric observation at a hospital following one of her increasingly frequent emotional meltdowns, her mother and father dispatched "friend of the family" Dr. Phil to look in on her. Britney, according to reports, was not appreciative, and McGraw retreated from the hospital, following up with a report to the press that the pop star was in bad shape, that he was "very concerned" for her welfare that she was in need of serious help double-quick.
"Betrayal!" cried the Spears family. "Unethical!" screamed the media. "This is GREAT!" exulted E!, TMZ, Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, and the rest of the gossip media that hadn't had anything so juicy come along since The Donald and Rosie were calling each other fat and ugly. Meanwhile, of course, a sick and confused young woman who has been exploited and warped since childhood is hurtling toward a life crisis.
I know what you are thinking: why even discuss such dreck? Well, important ethical principles are sometimes embedded in the most trivial stories, and the complex ethical questions in dreck the can be just as valid as those posed in great literature or momentous historical events. The Scoreboard, as always, is especially interested in ethical verdicts rendered by the media and pop culture. If ethics lessons are going to be taught, let's be sure they're the right ones.
Before evaluating Dr. Phil's conduct in this saga, the Scoreboard must begin by asking the key question in such ethics messes: "What really was going on here?" Let's summarize the key facts as they are currently known or can be reasonably surmised:
Here's the surprise: he didn't.
The Scoreboard acknowledges and does not approve of the deception inherent in McGraw's public persona. The public is encouraged to think of him as a professional therapist, and neither his TV show nor his books nor his website make it clear that he is not licensed, or let it be known that the only state where he was licensed considers him "retired," and that he left the profession due to an ethics violation. Presumably guests on his show have to sign some kind of waiver in connection with a disclaimer that Dr. Phil is not dispensing medical advice, or he would have been sued, shut down, or both by now. Still, his image and very name are misleading, and that is unethical, though admittedly unethical in a way that has been typical of television "experts" since the days of Dr. Joyce Brothers and before.
None of which is to say that Dr. Phil isn't good at what he does. He is. His advice on his show is usually sensible and persuasive, and I am sure he has helped many people. Indeed, he might even have talked some sense into Jamie and Lynn Spears if they had appeared on his show. I suspect that Dr. Phil would have had a field day telling them that they were self-centered and exploitive parents and that their daughters' personal problems stemmed directly from a neglectful and inept upbringing.
Was Dr. Phil preparing to exploit Britney's breakdown and her sister's pregnancy by featuring their venal parents? That's one way of looking at it, although it is hard to distinguish this from what Barbara Walters is doing when she interviews Michael Jackson, or what People or US or any magazine is doing when they feature Lindsay or Paris or Britney on the cover. Professional celebrities consent to being fodder for TV shows and print media by accepting celebrity status and profiting from it. Dr. Phil's job is to intrigue and engage the public, and the Britney Spears saga, sordid and tragic as it is, is a legitimate topic for him.
Britney's parents are a different matter. Their daughter is falling apart in chunks, losing her children, getting in legal trouble, wrecking her career, using drugs and embarrassing herself in public almost daily, and their response is to see if they can get on "Dr.Phil." Whether their conduct is mean and irresponsible, or just jaw-droppingly stupid, it can't be defended. But it was not up to McGraw to refuse a provocative program opportunity because Britney Spears' parents should have different priorities. As I have noted, the best way for Dr. Phil to help the Spears girls might have been for him to embarrass their parents (presuming that is even possible) on national television.
Thus there was nothing outrageous about McGraw seeking to see Spears during her hospitalization, because he wasn't visiting her as a therapist, or as a friend of the family, but as a TV host who needed to know what the situation was before he committed himself to a Spears installment. She didn't have to agree to see him; indeed, the hospital could have and perhaps should have prevented him from seeing her. If McGraw used his misleading "Dr." title and false image as a professional therapist to get past hospital security, that was an unethical act; I cannot determine whether that happened.
Whether it did or not, Phil McGraw was not operating under any professional obligation of therapist-patient confidentiality because 1) Britney Spears wasn't his patient and 2) he's not a therapist. There was no professional ethics breach when he made his statement to the media. But did he violate the trust of Jamie and Lynn Spears, as they alleged?
Perhaps, though I doubt it. I doubt that he was sent as "a Spears family friend" rather than "a famous guy that can get us some money and publicity by having us on his show," and I certainly don't believe that he agreed to make a psychological evaluation. But even if Dr. Phil did break an implicit or explicit agreement to keep the results of his visit to Britney Spears private, he made a decision that the right thing to do---the best way to get the people around Britney Spears to take action---was to make a public statement. Dr. Phil let the world know that she needs medical attention and an intervention, and that this was not something that should be left to a TV doctor. It hasn't done any good, as McGraw recently acknowledged; the Spears family managed to turn the story into a controversy over whether they were victimized by him. Britney is still falling, and in all likelihood, Jamie and Lynn Spears are still looking for a way to make a buck out of it.
At least Dr. Phil tried to do something to get help for the person who needs help. And because he isn't a real doctor, that was the best he could do.