Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Ethics Verdict on Dr. Phil's Spears Encounter
(1/30/2008)

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:

  • Dr. Phil McGraw is an entertainer, not a therapist. He was schooled and trained as a therapist, just as Fox trash-journalist Geraldo Rivera was trained as a lawyer. Unlike Geraldo, however, Dr. Phil had his professional license taken away from him due to an ethics offense. In 1989, McGraw was ordered by the Texas Board of Examiners of Psychologists to take an ethics class, pass a jurisprudence exam, complete a physical and a psychological evaluation and have his practice supervised for one year in order to regain his license and continue to practice as a therapist. He never completed the conditions imposed by the Board, and is not currently licensed to practice psychology anywhere. Texas lists him as "retired."

    When McGraw moved to California and adopted his TV persona, the California Board determined that he was not practicing psychology, but engaging in entertainment. The biography on Dr. Phil's website doesn't say that he is a licensed therapist (it doesn't say that he is not, either); all it says is that he "has a B.A. from Midwestern State University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from North Texas State University with a dual area of emphasis in clinical and behavioral medicine." Is he a doctor? Technically yes, because he has a PhD; Geraldo Rivera is also a "doctor" in the same sense, and so am I, because we both have a J.D. degree---a Doctor of Laws. But Dr. Phil is not a licensed doctor, which makes his moniker misleading to his audience and the guests on his show. If you think it would be misleading and ridiculous for Geraldo Rivera to call himself "Dr. Geraldo,' then you should understand why it is ethically objectionable for McGraw to allow himself to be referred to as "Dr. Phil."

  • Britney Spears is a troubled young woman in need of guidance, care and treatment. She was under-educated, under-socialized, and exploited by her family, who pushed her into becoming a wealthy pop icon without the emotional maturity and wisdom to deal with the role's pressures and temptations. Her erratic public behavior and bizarre handling of her divorce and child custody issues indicates that she has serious psychological and emotional problems. She is also legally an adult, and until it has been determined she is not able to make her own decisions, only she can choose who her doctor or therapist, licensed of course, will be.

  • Britney Spears' parents unable to pass up any opportunity to use their children's notoriety to make money. Exhibit A: Lynn Spears has the gall to peddle a book about "what she has learned" about being a "celebrity mom" while one daughter's career and emotional health is in free-fall and the other, a juvenile TV star, is pregnant at the age of 16. The family's logic is sometimes mysterious, but the quality of its judgement is not in question: it is miserable, and usually characterized by seeking publicity, media coverage and promotional fees over the welfare of its two celebrity daughters.

    The Spears family claims that while genuinely seeking help for Britney and possessing the resources to consult real, medical professionals who had not been stripped of their licenses to practice almost 20 years ago, its first choice was to contact Phil McGraw, not a therapist but someone who plays one on TV. If this is true, they are more pathetic and foolish than any Kathy Griffin monologue could portray them. The Scoreboard does not believe that story for a second.

    The family had been in discussions with "Dr. Phil" and his producers about a Spears family episode of his TV show, in which he would counsel them and presumably garner off-the-charts ratings. This has been widely reported and confirmed by industry sources, though periodically denied by the Spears family, who have approximately as much credibility as the Clinton family. Their claim that McGraw is "a family friend" is unbelievable, even by Hollywood standards where being "a close friend" often means that you were once in the same auditorium. They had a developing business relationship.

  • McGraw was dispatched to the hospital where Britney Spears had been checked in (after a disturbing confrontation involving her children and police), but not to "help her," as the family's cover story maintained. Doctor or not, McGraw definitely isn't an idiot, and he wasn't about to jeopardize his career and franchise by suddenly practicing psychology without a license in a situation where he was guaranteed to have coast-to-coast, website-to-website publicity. After all, anyone who gets within 50 yards of Ms. Spears is likely to be profiled on Access Hollywood. McGraw was there to do background research for the potential Spears show. That's his job, not handing out illicit diagnoses to wealthy families too cheap or dumb to hire real doctors. And as callous as it seems, that's what the Spears family almost certainly had him going to the hospital to do---check her out as a prelude to the planned show featuring them getting lectured and advised by Dr. Phil.

  • Dr. Phil saw Britney, and quickly determined that any show with her family would make him look like an exploitive creep---that is, just like Britney Spears' mother and father. He saw a woman in deep, deep trouble, and realized that just telling her family that would provide no likely assistance for Britney at all. So he did what he thought was the responsible, caring, ethical thing for a TV for-entertainment-purposes-only-unlicensed therapist to do in such a situation: sound the alarm. He issued a statement to the media that said, "My meeting with Britney and some family members this morning in her room at Cedars leaves me convinced more than ever that she is in dire need of both medical and psychological intervention." Translation: "This is serious, and it can't be handled by someone like me. She needs a real doctor, fast, and the Spears family isn't going to be much help. Somebody out there: do something!"

  • The Spears family's business manager (what does that tell you?) promptly went on the Today Show and accused McGraw of violating the family's trust by going public with his comments. Various cable TV experts, blogs, tabloids and others quickly jumped on the bandwagon, declaring that Dr. Phil had behaved unethically.

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.

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