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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

‘Dr. Phil’ Will Not Be Missed

As the 20-year run of ‘Dr. Phil’ comes to an end, reflecting on how the show combined pop psychology, the sleaziness of ’90s talk shows, and misleading culture war debates.

January 2023 ended with shocking news: Dr. Phil, the long-running Emmy-nominated pop psychology talk show, would end in a matter of months. 

Where would we be without Dr. Phil host Phil McGraw, a man with so much self-proclaimed authority and attributed notoriety, we might as well call him “The People’s Doctor”? McGraw is the tall, bald, Southern-accented man who famously said:

Rather than provide therapy, McGraw consistently subjected Dr. Phil guests to a blend of witty aphorisms, good humor, and “tough love” to solve their problems. As McGraw once told an audience at the American Psychological Association’s 2006 Annual Convention, “What if you could deliver common sense, understandable information about life and living and deliver it to the safety, security, and privacy of people’s homes every day for free?”

The success of Dr. Phil, the show and the man, wasn’t inevitable. McGraw, as he tells it, grew up very poor, even living penniless on the streets. Before working in behavioral medicine and forensic psychology, McGraw worked “hundreds of jobs” as he pushed himself through school to earn his degrees. By 1989, McGraw had left the mental health sphere. He co-founded Courtroom Sciences, Inc. (CSI), which provided trial consulting, jury selection, and witness training to “dozens of Fortune 500 companies” (including Exxon during their legal battle over the infamous Valdez oil spill). McGraw may have permanently stayed out of the media limelight had a woman named Oprah Winfrey not hired him to fight a “beef libel” lawsuit.

Most know this story: In the mid-’90s, Texas cattle ranchers sued Oprah Winfrey for stating on her talk show that she would not eat hamburgers anymore for fear of “Mad Cow Disease” (a neurological disease of cattle that, rarely, can spread to humans). To aid her in the ensuing lawsuit, Winfrey hired McGraw and CSI. She emerged victorious

As Winfrey heavily credited him for her acquittal, McGraw became Winfrey’s recurring guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show. McGraw’s popularity grew so much that Oprah’s Tuesday show became “Tuesday’s with Dr. Phil.” It was only a matter of time before McGraw got his own spin-off show (similar to another Oprah-platformed charlatan).

Dr. Phil launched in 2002 and, for a while, was a TV mainstay. Phil McGraw entertained audiences with his avuncular personality while simultaneously intimidating them with his “no-nonsense” attitude. Eric Rasmussen of Texas Tech University noted that while McGraw is not a licensed doctor (he previously practiced clinical psychology but let his license expire in 20061), he still exudes the authority of one and creates a “parasocial bond” with his audience

Even though McGraw is not a licensed medical doctor, the “Dr.” title allows him to seem trustworthy on medical matters and to get away with questionable ethical behavior. For example, McGraw could freely exploit the privacy of his Dr. Phil guests because he was never bound by patient confidentiality regulations. His “doctor” status never applied to physiology or medicine, but that didn’t stop him from authoring a book in 2013 called The Ultimate Weight Solution: The 7 Keys to Weight Loss Freedom (previously, McGraw had to settle a multi-million dollar lawsuit over bogus diet pills he shilled).

Most horrifyingly, in the last few years, McGraw has used his widely viewed TV show to endorse the scam that is Medicare Advantage (a shady plot to replace Medicare with privatized, tax-payer-funded health insurance). He did so by featuring an insurance agent and spokesperson from on the show at least four times2 since 2020. This spokesperson replied to McGraw’s questions in scripted equivocations, transforming the usual advice talk show into an outright infomercial (a disclaimer at the beginning of one video notes that Phil McGraw is a “paid spokesperson” for McGraw engaged in similar behavior when he served as a spokesperson for AstraZeneca’s diabetes medication.

When pressed on why he actually left his original psychology practice in 1989, McGraw claimed that he found traditional patient work to be too boring. McGraw insisted that traditional psychology and patient work was something “he did not love.” His newfound TV career presumably was something he didWithin four days of premiering, the daytime TV ratings of Dr. Phil exceeded that of any show since the debut of Oprah in 1986. The rest is history. 

Dr. Phil is a TV talk show, a medium historically known for milking “shock value” for ratings. Dr. Phil debuted in the early 2000s, following in the footsteps of ’90s tabloid shows like Jenny Jones, Maury, Ricki Lake, and Geraldo. Dr. Phil’s “wacky” guests, manipulative tragedy stories, and tabloid-like obsession with current events and celebrity scandals served (essentially) as a slightly more dignified version of old-school Jerry Springer.

A compilation of Dr. Phil’s  “craziest” guests includes the woman who claimed she was about to give birth to “baby Jesus” and that she was Eminem’s daughter. Other lists mention the man with “Sexy Vegan” tattooed on his forehead and the guy who claimed to be Taylor Swift’s song co-writer and “soul mate.” In the last few years, viewers also might have seen the 60-year-old woman engaged to a 22-year-old Nigerian man, who McGraw suspected was the victim of a cat-fishing scam, or even the 71-year-old unemployed Frank Sinatra impersonator who blamed his 90-year-old mother for his lifelong failure. We couldn’t forget the “Catch Me Outside” girl (aka Danielle Bregoli) who later became the rapper Bhad Bhabie.

However, a key thing had set McGraw apart from your Jerry Springers and Maury Poviches. McGraw understood that viewers get really bored seeing the same thing over and over again. You saw one bickering couple and a “dangerous” teen on Dr. Phil, you saw them all. That’s why McGraw always shook things up on Dr. Phil, inserting coverage of news stories, celebrity tragedies, and current events in between regular advice episodes. He explained in an interview that his team’s ethos essentially boiled down to “Don’t make anything boring!” If the team thinks the show is becoming formulaic, so will the viewer.

Additionally, McGraw proved himself to be an innovative, adaptive man in an ever-changing media landscape. McGraw and his son Jay created a medical talk show, The Doctors (the show lasted a nice 14 seasons, despite a British Medical Journal review finding only 63 percent of the show’s recommendations to be credible). For a few years, McGraw also executive produced Daily Mail TV. In an age of cord-cutting, Dr. Phil clips uploaded to YouTube have received millions of views. McGraw became one of the first daytime TV show hosts to simultaneously release a podcast when he launched Phil in the Blanks in 2019. Few 70-something-year-olds are friends with Mr.Beast or have TikToks with 7.6 million followers.

Dr. Phil is over, but we apparently haven’t seen the last of McGraw. McGraw has promised something big for prime time. CBS Media Ventures also stated that new segments would be added to Dr. Phil reruns, such as updates on the show’s guests. 

Commendably, upon learning of his daytime TV exit, the media resisted giving McGraw a hagiography. The Hollywood Reporter subtly noted that McGraw, like Judge Judy, Ellen DeGeneres, and Dr. Oz, was yet another daytime TV show host exiting the stage with accusations of questionable ethics and/or toxic workplaces in tow. CNN, Newsweek, MSNBC, NPR, Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, and Variety couldn’t help but list McGraw’s legacy of scandals. These ranged from McGraw sending Dr. Phil guests to abusive treatment centers, staging unsolicited and exploitative interventions, and allegedly making people struggling with addiction look more disheveled on TV, in addition to mocking those with mental health issues. Of course, no one article can truly document all the wrongs associated with Phil McGraw. Through the use of his Teflon-powers, McGraw remained successful. 

Perhaps these publications had finally had it with McGraw giving his  “Shut Up and Get Your Life Together!” speech, for the umpteenth time, to those with serious mental health issues. Yet for all the criticism the press lobbed at McGraw, they voiced practically no criticism towards Dr. Phil’s final season, which dabbled in far-right punditry. An article or two reminded people that McGraw appeared on The Ingraham Angle to denounce COVID lockdowns in 2020 (McGraw sheepishly apologized for that later but still pushed on with filming in 2021 when other studios had “pushed back filming schedules amid the virus surge”). Those pieces still missed the forest for the trees. 

In the last few years of Dr. Phil, McGraw has associated himself with far-right pundits like Matt Walsh, Andy Ngo, James Lindsay, Lila Rose, Will Witt, Asra Nomani, and the founders of Moms for Liberty. McGraw’s appearance on Laura Ingraham’s program makes a lot more sense when one realizes that he has also appeared on The Ben Shapiro Show, Hannity, and two episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience (first in 2019 and again in 2022). As for his own show, there’s a reason Media Matters for America (the one publication apparently paying attention) released an article entitled “CBS’ Dr. Phil has Become a Safe Space for Right-Wing Personalities to Spread Hate and Misinformation.” 

This is an abrupt shift to anyone who skipped Dr. Phil for several years and assumed the show was mere pop psychology. Dr. Phil didn’t air on Fox News or Newsmax. The show competed with The View and Live with Kelly and Ryan. 

Previously, we might have assumed that McGraw had some conservative beliefs such as “personal responsibility.” He’s a Texan from an older generation, after all. Yet, McGraw didn’t spend the bulk of his career demonizing “the left” or collaborating with PragerU. He’s not part of the “Intellectual Dark Web,” and his podcast doesn’t harbor anti-vaccine or anti-trans views. In fact, for the longest time, people of either conservative or liberal views could watch Dr. Phil without taking much offense. 

In 2018, Stephen Colbert asked McGraw, “I know you don’t talk about politics, but do you follow politics?” In response, McGraw told Colbert, 

I don’t talk politics because I don’t think I should use my platform to influence people on things I don’t know enough about. And I, frankly, don’t know enough about it, and most of the people that do talk about it don’t know enough about it to be talking about it.

Rest assured, it didn’t take too long for McGraw to reverse course.

McGraw has said that “socialism doesn’t work” because eventually “you run out of money.” This much remains a fact to him, even if high-GDP countries with socialist policies (however flawed) consistently spend more than “five times what Americans do on unemployment insurance and other labor market programs.” He also doesn’t believe people deserve an “equal outcome.” McGraw believes “hard work” creates riches, ignoring the fact that tax evasion, worker exploitation, and consolidated political power actually create and perpetuate wealth.

McGraw once cited “the science” on the issue of COVID restrictions and mortality to claim that Florida, a state with fewer COVID restriction measures, ranked better (in terms of mortality) than California, a state with more restrictions. He joked that obstinate liberals would blame the study’s findings on “Republicans.” We can’t prove with certainty which study McGraw was referring to, but it’s quite possible he was referring to some part of an anti-COVID restriction study showing that red states “outperformed” blue states, which Media Matters says “engineered” its results by manipulating statistics and which originated from conservative think tank partisans who favor economic prosperity! Whoops!

McGraw is very vocal about cancel culture being “out of control.” On the show and podcast, he’d state that college students today are too soft. McGraw frames student protestors (such as the UNM students who protested Tomi Lahren’s Turning Point USA-sponsored speech) as “too afraid” of “words and ideas” rather than the white supremacist violence that conservative speakers historically incite. He also voiced no dissent when Dr. Phil guest, author Greg Lukianoff, implied that a horrific religious extremist attack on Salman Rushdie was another symptom of “cancel culture.”

Despite all of that, it’d be unfair for us to dismiss McGraw as a regressive right-winger. McGraw isn’t Tucker Carlson. McGraw is more like Joe Rogan: his “common sense” conservatism is shielded by a vague set of progressive views.

McGraw frequently criticizes “victimhood culture” (a dog-whistle often implying that systemic racism is not real) but concedes that carceral violence, housing discrimination, police brutality, and general racial inequality exist. McGraw even came around to understanding the causal link between racism and homelessness. McGraw said that anyone trying to outlaw transgender existence could “kiss my ass” and endorses many LGBTQ organizations. McGraw proved on Dr. Phil that Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill used sneaky wording to ban the teaching of LGBTQ topics for students of all grades (not just grades K-3, as the bill’s proponents deceptively claimed, though now they’re a lot more honest about their agenda.).

For the longest time, Dr. Phil avoided politics unless it was the kind that translated into sensationalist TV. The most controversial news item Dr. Phil ever addressed may have been the two episodes on Trayvon Martin’s death, but the rest of the show mostly consisted of conflict resolution episodes. 

That is, until we got the Dr. Phil episode abhorred by Native American activists: “Adoption Controversy: Battle Over Baby Veronica.” The show concerned the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), a law prioritizing Native American guardians in Native adoptions. This episode is actually relevant over a decade after it aired, not just because the heavily-conservative Supreme Court will likely abolish ICWA in Brackeen v. Haaland. “Adoption Controversy” also gave us the earliest glimpse of a formula McGraw would use in the final seasons of Dr. Phil.

To start off the episode, McGraw interviewed Matt and Melanie Capobianco, who (at the time of airing) lost custody of their adopted Cherokee daughter, Veronica. The South Carolina Supreme Court awarded custody to Dusten Brown, Veronica’s biological Cherokee father, citing ICWA. McGraw asked the Capobiancos leading questions like, “Was this [court decision] made in the best interest of the child?” and implied that ICWA was outdated, despite the depressingly still-relevant problem of white people taking Native children from their families. One of the people McGraw brought on to support the Capobiancos was his friend Jay McCarthy of the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys. Within Native circles, McCarthy is known for using shady tactics to illegally defy ICWA

McGraw primed viewers to think that the Capobiancos suffered a grave injustice, but he ignored vital facts about their custody battle. Per ICWA, the courts broke the law by never informing Dusten Brown that his daughter was placed for adoption. The Capobiancos were fully aware that a Cherokee guardian had priority in Veronica’s adoption, but they pursued adoption anyway. The South Carolina Supreme Court sided with Dusten Brown for these reasons. Also, McGraw did not explain the broader context of Native cultural genocide or the history of greedy law firms using ICWA custody battles as a proxy for undoing tribal sovereignty laws

Dr. Phil’s other guests, Chrissi Nimmo (then assistant attorney general for the Cherokee Nation) and Les Marston (a tribal judge), countered with all the facts above. They added that the custody dispute wasn’t about “race” but citizenship and tribal sovereignty.

McGraw ignored such complicating points. McGraw exclaimed to Nimmo and Marston, “What I hear you saying, is what’s best for the tribe, and not what’s best for the child!”, even though the child’s trauma (of moving homes) could have been entirely avoided had everyone involved followed ICWA in the first place. Months after the show aired, Veronica’s custody case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled in the Capobiancos’ favor, using logic no less flawed than McGraw’s

Though we wouldn’t see it in action for several years, “Adoption Controversy” actually established a four-step formula McGraw would reuse when discussing politics.

  1. Introduce a topical issue that generates outrage.
  2. Platform speakers without disclosing their sordid reputations. Ignore any inconvenient facts.
  3. Create a debate by having token speakers of opposing views.
  4. McGraw gets the last word. He frames his incorrect and/or misleading views as “common sense.”

Generate Outrage

In the most recent seasons of Dr. Phil, the show introduced debates on political divisiveness, cancel culture, racial justice, cultural appropriation, abortion, transgender and nonbinary rights, inclusive learning practices, and harm reduction spaces, amongst other topics. A sample of flashy episode titles reveals the show’s implicit biases:

Platform Speakers and Ignore Inconvenient Facts

McGraw made his right-wing Dr. Phil guests look undeservedly credible, because he never told viewers their true origins. One of the first topical debates McGraw did post-“Adoption Controversy” was 2019’s “Controversy Over Hate Crimes.” After going “behind the headlines” of actor Jussie Smollett’s infamous staged hate crime attack, McGraw essentially asked: Are hate crimes as big of a deal as the media says? Should we be more skeptical of people who claim they were victims of such crimes? Does Jussie Smollett’s hoax ruin the cases of actual victims?

For this debate, McGraw’s guests, Clay Cane (a gay Black radio host, experienced with racialized violence) and activist Sally Kohn, affirmed the growing threat of hate crimes. McGraw’s other guests, Daily Wire editor Ben Shapiro and then Quillette editor Andy Ngo, meanwhile, argued that the media dishonestly chases “white supremacist narratives” when covering hate crimes (whereas Shapiro’s The Daily Wire frequently, and dishonestly, molds stories to fit their right-wing grievance narratives). Ngo stated that hate crimes in America are actually uncommon.

It’s very interesting that McGraw thought Shaprio and Ngo were the world’s best experts on white supremacy and hate crimes. By 2019, Shapiro and his publication The Daily Wire had already amassed enough race-related controversies. Ngo’s statements about hate crimes not being real rings especially disturbing, considering that Ngo enabled a white supremacist attack just months after this episode aired and has been accused of targeting at least one journalist of color with a disinformation campaign that the journalist says led to death threats against him. 

All of this was just the beginning. In the ensuing seasons, particularly Dr. Phil’s final season, viewers demanded McGraw cover more topical issues. To help him deliver on his viewers requests, McGraw solicited more conservative pundits.

During Season 19, McGraw casually spoke to Piers Morgan (a man linked to one of the worst tabloid privacy exploitation scandals) and Bret Weinstein (a former biology professor and current Ivermectin grifter) about their very narrow conception of cancel culture. McGraw helped Weinstein portray himself as a “canceled” free-speech martyr, rather than a guy who attracted alt-right figures to Evergreen State after needlessly intervening in a student protest against campus police brutality

Season 20’s “Gender Pronoun Debate” featured Daily Wire stochastic terrorist Matt Walsh. McGraw at least admitted upon introduction that Walsh was a controversial figure. McGraw needn’t have done so, though. Walsh proved himself to be very sensitive and kind-hearted … just kidding. Walsh couldn’t go five seconds without verbally attacking McGraw’s nonbinary guests for the crime of existing. He lied about a trans person being the perpetrator of a Virginia school’s sexual assault case for good measure, too. The same season featured a “Should Critical Race Theory be Taught in Schools?” debate where James Lindsay ranted about CRT being “Marxism.” 

Negative platforming only continued during Dr. Phil’s final season, which premiered with an abortion debate. McGraw is pro-choice but begged people to take seriously the opinions of his anti-abortion guest, Lila Rose. “No matter how flat you make a pancake, it’s got two sides,” right? That illusion might have been ruined had McGraw disclosed that Rose spent years producing Project Veritas hoax videos and bogus “sting” operations against Planned Parenthood. McGraw actually countered Rose’s lies about scientists agreeing that “life begins at fertilization,” but Rose kept interrupting with more lies.

During a cancel culture episode, McGraw fawned over a Young America’s Foundation student who faced censorship. Yet, he made no mention of YAF’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, LGBTQ book ban efforts, or their “Ban Transgenderism” events. In the same episode, McGraw framed Turning Point USA as an unfairly maligned organization—and not one whose speakers express similar sentiments while promoting election denial and keeping a professor “watchlist” that targets professors too far on the “left.”

McGraw led viewers to think Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich were just very involved parents running a friendly organization called Moms for Liberty. Justice and Descovich themselves insisted their goals are pure: they advocate for bans on books and curricula that “sexualize” kids (i.e., that it’s OK not to be cis or straight) and that make them “feel bad” about their race (i.e., teach them honest history). Would viewers have taken Justice and Descovich’s positions seriously if they knew about their ties to the Heritage Foundation and the Florida Republican Party? If McGraw had detailed their smear campaigns against educators (one of which included a false child abuse allegation) and their attacks against LGBTQ people and trans-affirming healthcare, might that explain their agenda better? 

Likewise, McGraw relied on Dr. Carole Hooven, a lecturer in evolutionary biology at Harvard, and NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines to advocate for trans exclusion in sports. He didn’t disclose either woman’s status as Fox News media darlings, something viewers might have benefited from knowing.

McGraw’s worst whitewashing came in his “Inclusivity or Indoctorination” episode. Up for debate was whether schools need to notify parents if their child comes out as trans. McGraw interviewed Asra Nomani and a parent only identified as “Jennifer,” both associated with the Independent Women’s Forum. McGraw made no mention of Nomani’s deranged articles from The Federalist, but amazingly, Nomani didn’t come off as terrible as Jennifer.

Jennifer openly stated that she pulled her child out of school because the school did not disclose that her child came out as trans (Jennifer claimed not to have been aware of this for months even though she admitted that the child had been “experimenting with these different identities” for some time). Jennifer explained to McGraw that, essentially, she forcibly socially detransitioned her child: “we removed her basically from all the influences that were affirming her [gender identity]” such as “devices” and LGBTQ-identifying friends, and “slowly she let go of it.”

Instead of pointing out to Jennifer that forcibly detransitioning a child is likened to abuse, McGraw nodded along. After all, if we’re too accepting of LGBTQ people, YOUR CHILD’S SCHOOL might brainwash YOUR CHILD into being trans! If it happened to Jennifer, it could happen to you. Of course, McGraw forgot to mention that the Independent Women’s Forum (the organization that Jennifer and Asra Nomani are associated with) is Koch brother-funded and regularly produces anti-trans misinformation. Jennifer can be seen in such a misinformation video, perhaps suggesting she is more “demagogue” than “concerned parent.” 

Speakers Debate

McGraw admitted to Joe Rogan that he read the Media Matters piece calling him a “safe space” for “hate and misinformation,” stating:

I actually read an article by some site I’ve never even heard of that says, ‘Dr. Phil has become a platform for right-wing … hatemongers.’ … They listed some shows where I had on people on the right, giving them a voice, … [but] not one time did they mention that sitting right across from them, was the other side!

McGraw is being completely truthful. He interviewed Lila Rose in the abortion episode, but he also interviewed National Organization for Women president Christian Nunes and pro-abortion civil rights lawyer Ben Crump. PragerU pundits Will Witt and Amala Ekpunobi defended cultural appropriation (and received free advertising for PragerU’s racist videos ). Yet, McGraw also talked to YouTuber Brittany Collins, Arizona State University professor Neal Lester, and journalist Angela Pagán, all of whom explained potential harmful impacts of cultural appropriation.

“The Gender Pronoun Debate” infamously featured Matt Walsh, but Walsh only came ten minutes after nonbinary influencer Addison Rose Vincent and their partner, Ethan, patiently explained gender pronouns and identities to McGraw and his audience. Walsh actually complained to Megyn Kelly that he didn’t get his own segment! Moms for Liberty’s co-founders were recurring Dr. Phil guests, but so was Shaun Harper, the founder and executive director of USC’s Race and Equity Center. In one episode, Harper, who himself has taught CRT, said that CRT was being used as a “bogeyman,” and in another, Harper openly disagreed that colleges are hotbeds of liberalism after free speech activist Greg Lukianoff asserted that college professors have been fired at alarming rates in recent years due to cancel culture.

Because McGraw platformed both right-wing and left-wing pundits on Dr. Phil, he felt that anyone who criticized his choices of guests was too close-minded.

McGraw didn’t agree with California State Senator Scott Wiener and Dr. Maia Szalavitz on harm reduction spaces (legally sanctioned locations for unhoused drug users to receive clean needles, fentanyl tests, and medical attention), but he still had them on his show. McGraw may have instead sided with Michael Shellenberger (his climate change-denying guest who wrote San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities), but he still later featured Shellenberger and Weiner on separate podcasts. Similarly, McGraw might not have agreed with everything his guest Eli Erlick said about trans rights. Yet, he still let Erlick shut down a transphobic audience member who repeated the lie that trans people “regret” doing “permanent harm” to their bodies. 

If McGraw can handle disagreement and differing voices on his show, why can’t we on the left do the same? Well, would it surprise anyone that McGraw is creating a false premise when he acts like his critics are just afraid of disagreement? The “both sides” approach makes sense when referring to a bickering couple with equally understandable arguments. But it’s invalid for debates between an informed activist with lived experience and a grifter trying to move the Overton Window.

McGraw’s insistence that every issue has two equally weighted sides creates its own type of harm. Platforming is never impartial. YouTuber Shaun astutely noted that if you platform a “flat-earther” in the name of impartiality (as the BBC said it hypothetically might), you’re treating an otherwise incorrect and inaccurate view as valid. More people will believe the incorrect views (or at least, be less inclined to disagree with them) if they’re falsely presented as “two sides to the same coin.” 

Shaun Harper and those who defend Critical Race Theory are not equivalent to the paid Republican activists who drummed up the CRT moral panic in the first place. Ben Crump and Christian Nunes, who provide, respectively, legal and healthcare resources for those affected by draconian abortion laws, are not equally weighted to Lila Rose’s anti-abortion propaganda and hoax operations. Guests like Addison Rose Vincent and Eli Erlick advocate for LGBTQ people to safely exist. People like Matt Walsh, on the other hand, disagree to the point of thinking LGBTQ people deserve violence directed at them. 

For McGraw though, these views are just the two extremes of the “culture war.” 

Columnist Adam Johnson observed that the media uses clichéd euphemisms like “issues” and “culture war” to mask grotesque, prejudiced attacks against marginalized groups that exclusively come from conservatives and the far right. “The Other Side” does nothing of equivalence, but the media, including Dr. Phil, ignores this so that everything can be put up for “debate.”

The Last Word: McGraw’s ‘Common Sense’

McGraw misleadingly convinced his audience that evil Native Americans kidnapped children from white parents in “Adoption Controversy.” He had more tricks up his sleeve in the ensuing seasons. McGraw believes that harm reduction spaces “enable” addiction and, as per B.F. Skinner and behaviorism, “You do not [should not] reward bad behavior!” Never mind that Noam Chomsky and other professionals have challenged “behaviorism” for decades. Portugal and the Netherlands have decriminalized some drugs, and the countries’ rehabilitation strategies suggest that harm reduction policies are better than carceral policies in addressing drug use and addiction. Still, McGraw “respectfully disagree[s].”

McGraw has questioned whether kids are too young to learn about pronouns and gender identities. He condescendingly suggested to psychiatrist Yalda Safai that she should break confidentiality if a child comes out to them. McGraw is technically correct about a child therapist not being legally bound by confidentiality with a patient who is a minor, but it would still be unethical for a therapist to out a trans kid to their potentially non-accepting parents. 

McGraw similarly felt that excluding trans women from sports was “common sense.” McGraw also neglected to mention that laws banning trans people from sports are made by organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom, who see this as a gateway to outlawing trans existence.

Ultimately, the most incorrect belief McGraw ever stated was that people he featured on his show had more to agree on than disagree. It’d be nice if this were true.

The controversial people McGraw was so intent on platforming never wanted to find common ground with their opponents. Andy Ngo and his allies literally want his enemies destroyed. Lila Rose evidently sinks to the lowest of the low to get abortion permanently outlawed. Matt Walsh outright said he has no interest in finding unity with non-cis/non-straight people—he prefers they not exist at all. Ben Shapiro laughably laments how divided Americans are in his book The Right Side of History, but Shapiro’s brand is “owning the left.” Young America’s Foundation constantly pushes videos of speakers “owning” “arrogant leftists” and “shutting down” trans people at colleges. Tomi Lahren and Turning Point USA will always liken antifascist and racial justice movements to “terrorism.” Amala Ekpunobi still ridicules “woke” protesters and students. Moms for Liberty wants Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill enacted in all 50 states and any teacher teaching inclusive education or anything honest about racism canned. The Independent Women’s Forum supports similar outcomes. 

By treating these people with kid gloves, McGraw advanced everyone’s goals. Matt Walsh wanted more airtime on his episode but being on a non-Fox News show sufficed (Walsh lists his heavily discussed Dr. Phil appearance as his first major achievement of 2022). Both Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson praised Lila Rose for “owning” Dr. Phil’s pro-abortion audience. Amala Ekpunobi used her Dr. Phil appearance as mocking fodder for her podcast, Unapologetic. The guests from Moms for Liberty and the Independent Women’s Forum similarly gloated about Dr. Phil increasing their exposure and legitimacy. 

If the “Culture War” was an actual war, the early 2020s served as the left’s series of really tough losses. Dobbs overturned Roe v. Wade and the predominantly conservative U.S. Supreme Court has more terrible, life-altering decisions on the way. Police departments have received more funding and increased their shootings of civilians. Progressive prosecutors, when not being replaced with unelected, corrupt officials, had their legitimacy jeopardized by the people and the press. White supremacist violence is growing stronger, even in “blue states.” Elon reinstated the worst Twitter accounts while silencing progressive voices. Florida finalized its status as one of the worst states for LGBTQ people by having its “Don’t Say Gay” law criminalize inclusive education (something Gov. Ron DeSantis modeled after Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán) and by criminalizing trans-affirming healthcare (the legislature relied on “gender conversion” advocates and those with no experience in trans healthcare to justify their views. Other states followed suit.). Moral panic journalism is translating to Republican-led legislative victories.

Adding insult to injury, Phil McGraw flooded the political discourse with half-truths and misinformation. Journalists, media critics, psychology professionals, and even everyday people can mock McGraw all they want. He got away with all of it because he made for a compelling TV personality.

McGraw essentially told millions of people that it is OK to be a reactionary. “Soft on crime” lawmakers have ruined cities. Oversensitive “wokes” do “cancel” people for ridiculous reasons. LGBTQ people are going too far by “forcing” kids to be gay and trans. McGraw was one notch above Fox News by featuring credible guests who disagreed, but those guests likely only made viewers angrier and proved that the world really is depraved. Even the more centrist viewers likely appreciated McGraw’s right-wing guests (whose true backgrounds they didn’t actually know) for validating their honest thoughts. Subsequently, McGraw served as their gateway for accepting the worst of far-right rhetoric. 

Dr. Phil is gone now, but it will take a long time to undo the damage he left behind on all fronts. As McGraw continues to work in the media, we should keep everything analyzed here in mind. At the very least, we’ll make sure he doesn’t skate by on his reputation as “The People’s Doctor.”

  1.  In response to potential critics who might accuse him of fraudulently calling himself a doctor, McGraw said “You still have to call me Dr. Phil” because he has always been eligible to be licensed to practice in California and has decades of experience and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. 

  2. Seen here: October 2020, February 2022, October 2022, November 2022

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