Dr. Drew Pinsky’s latest pseudo-diagnosis: Clinton is brain-damaged, but Trump is like a fearless fighter pilot!

Cable TV’s Dr. Drew Pinsky (“Dr. Drew”) appears to be providing a bit of help for Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, according to reports by Douglas Perry in The Oregonian and Samantha Allen in The Daily Beast. Dr. Drew–joining the chorus of right-wing rumor mongers who allege that Hillary Clinton is having seizures and suffering from dementia–made a number of artfully insidious comments on radio last week. “What is going on with her health care? It’s bizarre,” he said in an Aug. 16 Los Angeles interview on KABC’s “McIntyre in the Morning.” He stated that he and another reality-TV doc, Robert Huizinga, had “dispassionately” reviewed a medical record that Clinton had released. Based on this record, they were “gravely concerned” about her health and her health care, he said. He cited what the record supposedly revealed regarding her hypothyroidism as well as a problem with transverse sinus thrombosis and the fact that she had worn prism glasses for a short period after her 2012 concussion–a “sign of brain damage,” he claimed. But Allen reports:

The only record that was available for Pinsky and his Biggest Loser colleague to review is a page-and-a-half letter from Dr. Lisa Bardack, Clinton’s physician at Mount Kisco Medical Group. That letter concludes that the former Secretary of State is “a healthy female with hypothyroidism and seasonal allergies, on long-term anticoagulation.”

Indeed, all of Pinsky’s “grave” concerns are already addressed in the record that he claims to have “dispassionately” evaluated. In it, Dr. Bardack notes that the prism glasses were used to treat “double vision” for two months after the concussion, and then discontinued. There is no mention of any other “brain damage.” And the rare blood clot was also addressed three years ago.

“She had follow-up testing in 2013, which revealed complete resolution of the effects of the concussion as well as total dissolution of the thrombosis,” the letter states. “Clinton also tested negative for all clotting disorders.”

Dr. Drew’s comments were cautiously phrased, but they amount to a medical version of dog-whistle code language. Supporters of  Trump and other Hillary haters understand the message and are already spreading it far and wide on the web. The Oregonian noted how Dr. Drew’s insinuations parallel those of Fox News’ Sean Hannity, who is promoting the Hillary-has-seizures allegation concocted by web conspiracists who base their arguments on fake medical reports and absurdly doctored videos.

Breitbart News…and a double standard

This is not the first time Dr. Drew has served as a shill for the Right against Clinton. According to Media Matters, he cited on his show last January a baseless report from Breitbart News about alleged Clinton health problems. The report had stated that Clinton’s delay in returning from the restroom during a Democratic debate had been the result of a flare-up of a brain injury from the fall she had taken in 2012. Breitbart News is a news and opinion website specializing in dirty-tricks-type rumors (including from Trump associate Roger Stone), conspiracy theories and white nationalist-laced materials. Dr. Drew had to apologize for his January remarks on camera, stating that he had “violated HLN and CNN’s editorial standards and I was wrong to have mentioned an unsubstantiated report.”

Breitbart News enthusiastically reported on Dr. Drew’s most recent comments about Clinton’s health in an article appearing  on Aug. 17–the very day that the executive chairman of Breitbart News, Stephen K. Bannon, formally stepped down to become CEO of the Trump presidential campaign. The article carried the byline of Alex Swoyer, the same Breitbart reporter who had written about Dr. Drew’s earlier allegations (“‘Sudden Death’: Dr. Drew Warns of Coming Pulmonary Embolism with Hillary Clinton’s ‘Shoddy’ Health,” Jan. 8). Swoyer had previously appeared on Dr. Drew On Call, where she attracted attention by a negative remark she made about Black Lives Matter.[1]

Dr. Drew has adopted a sly double standard in his recent comments on the two presidential candidates. In an Aug. 2 interview with CNN, he was ambiguous about whether Trump had any psychological or neurological problems. Regarding the theory that the unruly Republican candidate has narcissistic personality disorder, Dr. Drew said that narcissism “generally can be a good thing,” clearly ignoring the evidence that Trump has veered beyond the normal narcissism of celebrities into something far more alarming. “If you’re a fighter pilot,” Dr. Drew continued, “we want you to be narcissist, not to have fear in extreme circumstances.” He speculated that Trump might have a bipolar condition but then appeared to laugh it off: “A little hypomania can be great. There are a lot of hypomaniac businessmen that get a ton done.” These remarks were made within a framework of supposed doubts about Trump’s fitness for office, making them all the more insidious.

From reality TV to death-penalty sensationalism

Who is Dr. Drew, really? He’s a physician who developed a sideline in talk radio even while still in medical school in the 1980s. A show he co-hosted, “Loveline,” went national on radio and TV in the mid-1990s. In 2008, he launched “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” a reality TV show that copied in part from the dubious TV methods of  Dr. Phil McGraw (a clinical psychology Ph.D. who exploits naive and vulnerable persons before a national audience for profit and ratings and, in spite of not being licensed to practice as a psychologist, describes himself on his website as “perhaps the most well-known mental health professional in the world”).

“Celebrity Rehab” ultimately proved to be a disaster as rehab treatment, if not as entertainment. In May 2013, after the suicide of country star Mindy McCready, the fifth of his online addiction “patients” to take their own lives, Dr. Drew announced that he was ending the show. His decision, he admitted, was due to criticism from the media and addiction experts. Some of the strongest criticism had appeared in an article in The Fix (“Is Dr. Drew Too Risky for Prime Time?”) by health reporter Maia Szalavitz:

With the news last week of country star Mindy McCready’s suicide by gun, the death toll among Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab patients now stands at five, giving the show an unusually high mortality rate of nearly 13%. But what’s even more disturbing is that most of those deaths—possibly even McCready’s—might have been prevented if the program had utilized treatment practices proven to be most effective.

Although Dr. Drew appears to truly believe in what he does, addiction experts say that the treatment philosophy and policies demonstrated in his show and public statements often do not reflect the best evidence-based practices. His rejection of maintenance treatments, use of punitive detox practices and humiliating therapy and insistence that people cannot truly recover without complete abstinence through 12-step programs reflect the conventional wisdom of the 1980s, not the data of the 21st century. Indeed, Celebrity Rehab’s treatment—leaving aside the massive confidentiality violation of being televised—diverges dramatically from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment, a guide that lays out standards for the best addiction care.

Take the harsh way McCready was treated during her detox on season three of Pinsky’s show, which premiered in 2010. As the cameras rolled, the country star began shaking and making involuntary movements. Her roommate, Mackenzie Phillips, simply laughed at her, apparently buying into the stereotype that addicts who seem ill must be faking it. But as Phillips belatedly realized that the seizure was all too real, the cameras continued to roll. She raced around, screaming and searching for a nurse; nearly a minute goes by with no one stopping the production to help. Instead, the cameraperson actually zoomed in as McCready shuddered and shook.

In explaining on radio his decision to end the show, Dr. Drew appeared to accept no responsibility for the suicides, instead focussing on his own feelings:

“I’m tired. It’s very stressful and intense for me,” Pinsky said….”To have people questioning my motives and taking aim at me because people get sick and die because they have a life-threatening disease, and I take the blame?” (As quoted in Hollywood Reporter, May 3, 2013.)

But Dr. Drew had already been hosting (since 2011) CNN affiliate HLN’s “Dr. Drew On Call.” Here, in 2013-14, he moved into the loathsome Nancy Grace’s line of country, whipping up public hate of Jodi Arias, the defendant in a high-profile murder case, and helping to turn her trial into a media circus. I recall how he and Grace pushed and pushed for the death penalty against Arias, the Mexican-American woman convicted of murdering her white Mormon boyfriend, Travis Alexander (who manipulated and used her, then cast her aside), under circumstances sufficiently ambiguous that the prosecution should never have gone for the death penalty.

Dr. Drew invited women prosecutors, therapists and individuals with impossibly vague areas of expertise (with a notable emphasis on blondes) onto his show on a nightly basis to help him whip up support for executing the black-haired defendant with native American features (and skin slightly darker than that of the Mormon woman Alexander was supposedly planning to marry behind Arias’ back even though Arias had converted to Mormonism to please him); in the process, Dr. Drew inevitably built up political support for the death penalty in general.

The antics of Dr. Drew in this case raise more questions about his ethics as a physician, not only in his expression of medical opinions from a distance but also in his willingness to traffic in junk science and quackery. A Jan. 24, 2013 Dr. Drew episode bears the title “Is Jodi Arias Crazy?” (not guilty, but crazy–a medical judgment).  Crime and Court News stated the matter forthrightly in its introduction to the transcript of his March 19, 2013 show: “Dr. Drew and his nightly guest panel have delved into the inner workings of Jodi Arias’s mind…”

In that transcript, Dr. Drew features on his panel one Janine Driver, author of You Can’t Lie to Me, introducing her (like a carnival barker) as the “human lie detector.” Curiously, Driver provides on her web page no academic or professional credentials in psychology or any other science-based field; her “Body Language Institute” claims to use “cutting-edge NLP coaching, body language, and deception detection techniques.” NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) had a certain popularity a quarter of a century ago, but is widely regarded in the psychology profession as containing large elements of pseudo-science; the portions of it that may be based on legitimate mental health concepts (e.g., reframing as also used in cognitive therapy) have nothing to do with lie detection.

A “lynch mob” atmosphere

HLN adopted a hostile attitude towards the defense’s expert witnesses, thus helping to create an atmosphere of intimidation. Karen Franklin, Ph.D. describes in Psychology Today how domestic violence counselor Alyce D. LaViolette, who testified in 2013 as to Arias being a victim of abuse by Alexander, was stalked and subjected to death threats, and became the target of “internet mobbing” when over 10,000 people signed an online petition calling for a “boycott of [her] lecture contracts” and a book she had co-authored on domestic violence received “a thousand negative hits on Amazon.” Franklin placed much of the blame for such intimidation on HLN and CNN:

[LaViolette’s] analysis runs counter to the dominant narrative in a gendered morality play produced by media conglomerate Turner Broadcasting and distributed through its cable channels, HLN, CNN and In Session. In this good-versus-evil melodrama, Arias is a psychopathic female who killed a morally righteous man in a fit of jealous rage. Period. End of story. Airbrushed out are all the nuances, the shades of grey inevitably present in any such violent tragedy.

The Turner cable channels almost certainly contributed to the 2014 wave of anger against the holdout juror (“Juror 17”) in the second and last attempt by the prosecution to win a decision for death in the penalty phase of Arias’ trial. The juror received numerous death threats and was briefly placed under 24-hour police protection. And she wasn’t the only one. According to the Phoenix New Times:

The contagious contempt of Arias spread to her lawyers, family, and expert witnesses. And, as her lead attorney, Kirk Nurmi became the biggest target.

Across social media, Nurmi was called sleazy, despicable, slime, a snake, and a terrible lawyer. He received death threats and hundreds of nasty e-mails and phone calls.

Another part of the circus was the death-to-Jodi demonstrations near the Phoenix, AZ courthouse. I watched the HLN and CNN coverage of the trial and its ancillary events on many occasions and became convinced that much of what was being manifested was as virulently racist as it was misogynistic–and that the case had become a political football in a state whose Republican governor, Jan Brewer, gained Tea Party celebrity status in 2012 by wagging her finger in the face of our first African-American president as if he were her house slave, and where the Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio, had become an icon of the far right through his flamboyant mistreatment of minority prisoners and his frequent racist comments directed primarily (like those of Donald Trump two years later) against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. I found it disgustingly ironic that the Hispanic prosecutor of Arias, Juan Martinez, was being idolized by some of the same white Jodi-demonizers who almost certainly were strong supporters of Arpaio as well. (According to The Atlantic, Trump supporter Arpaio and three associates may soon face criminal charges by the Justice Department for violating a federal court order to cease the racial profiling of Latinos.) In this toxic environment, Dr. Drew blithely encouraged a lynch-mob fever (in the psychological sense of the term) in pursuit of higher and higher ratings for his show.

Given the extreme violence of the crime, the fecklessness of Arias and the general lack of sympathy for her, what inevitably emerged was a kind of mass sadism similar to that which is found on a smaller scale among teenagers when a particular peer–whether male or female–is perceived as weak and without allies. The gruesome pictures of Alexander’s body allowed members of the public (and Dr. Drew’s panelists) to project their own inner rage, whatever its provenance, onto a symbolic evil woman who conveniently happened to be a minority woman. This surge was not helpful to the cause of justice, and what Dr. Drew and his panels of “experts” did was far nastier than anything on Trump’s The Apprentice. That Arias escaped the injection chamber because of a single juror was no thanks to Dr. Drew and his producers. And I suspect that many people who allowed themselves to be whipped up at the time would concede in retrospect, regardless of their firm belief in Arias’ guilt, that this was TV sensationalism at its worst.[2]

In the U.S. and elsewhere, the public frenzy included an outpouring of social media hate speech, including that found in the comments under links to HLN/Dr. Drew episodes on YouTube. For instance, a viewer from the UK began his comments with “Kill the bitch” and then suggested:

Why not let Travis Alexanders sister sneak up behind her, stab her 29 times,slit her throat from ear to ear,then shoot her in the face.Then scalp the krazy slut,set her on fire with petrol,cut off her feet with a hacksaw but keep her alive with a blood transfusion.Then pour sulphuric acid over her,paste her face with napalm,skewer her eyballs out with a rusty fork and finally let 2 insane rottweilers tear the mental bastard into pieces to finish her off……….NOW THATS WHAT I CALL JUSTICE.

My comments about Dr. Drew were triggered by his dubious medical statements regarding Hillary Clinton, and I can’t help but note that the type of violent misogynist rhetoric that his show helped to elicit against Arias is also being used against Clinton this year. Chants and cries for killing the Democratic presidential candidate have been reported frequently at Trump rallies, while postings urging or hoping that she will be killed have become a staple on Alt-Right media, where they are supplemented by references to the “day of the rope” in The Turner Diaries (see the report by online journalist Cooper Fleishman).

The lurid evidence at trial of kinky sex between Arias and Alexander seemed to fascinate Christian Right viewers as much as secular ones, resulting in the predictable response of viewers denying their titillation by fantasizing about killing the “slut” (or, one might say, the “witch”). Dr. Drew fed this tendency night after night. That is the nature of TV sensationalism, but Dr. Drew did something else that can’t be explained away simply as “show biz.” Presenting himself at all times as a medical doctor, he made statements, and gave open or tacit approval to statements by guests on his show, which no licensed physician should have made or approved without (a) having personally examined Arias (he didn’t) and (b) being board certified in psychiatry (he isn’t).

Questions about Dr. Drew’s credentials

To provide himself with credibility in the mental health field, Dr. Drew has pointed to his certification in addiction medicine. This may have been useful in giving credibility to Celebrity Rehab and its successor, Sex Rehab With Dr. Drew, but his certification came from an “independent” board in addiction medicine that was not and is not a recognized member of the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS), which at the time only recognized the subspecialty of addiction psychiatry (added to the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology’s list of subspecialties in 1993). To obtain certification in addiction psychiatry, one needs to be a certified psychiatrist. Dr. Drew’s only ABMS specialist certification is as an internist. According to American Board of Internal Medicine records, he was certified as an internist in 1987 but does not participate in the ABIM’s Maintenance of Certification (MOC) program (doctors who were certified prior to 1990 are strongly encouraged to participate but are not required to do so).

Dr. Drew claims to be an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, but I could not find his name in any faculty listing at Keck or USC. I did find a Keck press release hailing him as a famous alumnus of the school of medicine and repeating his claim of being an assistant professor. If he once was, but no longer is, playing a teaching role at Keck, he should say so–and stop using a former position as if it were a current one to bolster his credibility as a TV expert on Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or Jodi Arias or anyone else.

In March 2016, the ABMS recognized addiction medicine (NOT addiction psychiatry, which was already recognized–see above) as a subspecialty under the purview of the American Board of Preventive Medicine, which has been a member of the ABMS since 1949. To be legitimately recognized as a subspecialist in addiction medicine, Dr. Drew would have to obtain certification in preventive medicine and then in the subspecialty of addiction medicine. His current sole claim to certification in this field is from the American Board of Addiction Medicine (ABAM), the status of which as an “independent” certifying entity remains unchanged.

Dr. Drew’s statement on his website as of August 21, 2016 that he is “Board Certified in Addiction Medicine” is as misleading today as it was prior to March 2016. And even if an agreement is made to allow some addiction medicine specialists (whether ABAM members or not) to get certification in an easy manner, it would still be addiction medicine, not addiction psychiatry or any other form of psychiatry–a fact that would continue to call into question Dr. Drew’s snap judgments about defendants in capital murder cases and candidates for President.

The Mirror Effect

Dr. Drew co-authored The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America (2009),[3] which contains some useful insights. But in his role as a TV personality, he has lunged into the realm of the unethical again and again. And he now seems to be using his medical credentials on behalf of Trump, thus downplaying what he’d previously written about the very type of problematic interactions between celebrities and their audiences/fans that would partly fuel Trump’s sinister rise as a presidential candidate. That Dr. Drew, regardless of his recent slyly admiring view of Trump, is perfectly aware of the difference between ordinary narcissism and the extreme behavior manifested by the Republican presidential candidate is revealed in an interview about the The Mirror Effect with USA Today in which he stated, spot-on: “Narcissism is a continuum of traits. There is a point at which it crosses into disorder.”

Trump appears to feel more comfortable around celebrities than around sober policy wonks. I can imagine him appointing Dr. Drew as U.S. Surgeon General or possibly making him the Secretary of Health and Human Services. In the frenetic world of the Trump Manifesto, it’s Media Manipulators of the World, Unite!

[1] Swoyer had commented during a Dr. Drew show on Sept. 17, 2015 in which Black Lives Matter had come under discussion, that Michael Brown had not had his hands up when he was shot to death in Ferguson, MO. Her statement suggested, in the context of the show’s immediately preceding interchanges, that the BLM movement is based on a lie. This triggered the second of what seems to have been, from the video record available online, two brief outbursts from a young black woman in the audience who previously had spoken at the microphone in an engaging manner. Dr. Drew overreacted–as if the African-Americans in the audience and on the panel were going to start a riot–and threatened to “go to a test pattern,” i.e., shut down the show. His threat, which he did not carry out, gave the Alt-Right media an excuse for spreading wildly exaggerated accounts of what had occurred, and also gave a boost to the image of Swoyer as a champion of Alt-Right views.

[2] “Jodi Arias: An Argument for Reasonable Doubt” at http://justice4jodi.wikispaces.com summarizes HLN’s and Dr. Drew’s tactics in the Arias trial in the following 10 points:

  • Decided Jodi was guilty before trial began.
  • Implicit mantra: “Guilty until proven innocent.”
  • Cherry-picked evidence to validate their opinions alone and presented it as news….
  • Mock juries, fed unsubstantiated hearsay as “facts”, convicting her night after night after night.
  • Indicated that anyone who spoke up for Jodi deserved to be bullied and threatened.
  • Interviewed only people who agreed with their predetermined verdict and demeaned anyone who didn’t.
  • TV internist diagnosing her as a “psychopath”.
  • “Screaming head” diagnosing her as a “pathological liar”.
  • Nightly “Bombshells!” from Nancy Grace
  • Confirmation bias + ratings + money = Yellow Journalism

I watched HLN’s coverage on numerous occasions and believe the summary to be accurate. I’m not presenting it here to argue for Arias’ total innocence, but to highlight how HLN failed to look at the many holes in the case for premeditated murder and never seriously addressed the question of whether Arias had been overcharged as a result of political zealotry. Instead, Dr. Drew and his associates at HLN eagerly and cynically helped to whip up the mass hysteria that almost certainly influenced an unsequestered jury and came within a hair’s breadth of producing a death sentence.

[3] Although USC business professor S. Mark Young is the co-author of  The Mirror Effect and the Journal of Research in Personality study that proceeded it, and was clearly acknowledged as such in publicity about both the study and the book, his name is curiously missing, as of Aug. 21, 2016, from the description of the book in Dr. Drew’s web bio at drdrew.com.