Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dr. Phil: Promoting Killing People with Cognitive Disabilities - And a Close Encounter in 2002

The first time I ever heard of Dr. Phil McGraw was in the late summer of 2002 when I got a call from one of his producers.

First, she had to explain to me just who "Dr.Phil" was.  By now, anyone reading this knows his history with Oprah and his trajectory into his own show, so I don't have to go over that part.

Once the producer got over that part, she got to the point of her call.  The show would start airing soon and they were planning and taping the first shows.  They planned to do a show on Carol Carr, who, in June of 2002, had walked into the nursing home where her two sons resided in Griffin, Georgia.  She went to the room that they shared and shot both men dead.  Both men had Huntington's disease. Michael Randy Scott was 42 and Andy Byron Scott was 41.

What they planned for the show, she explained, was to hold a sort of 'mock trial' for Carol Carr.  They would have 'experts' debate the pros and cons of treating her shooting of her sons as a murder vs. exonerating her as having performed an act of mercy.

They already had their 'experts' lined up, but didn't say (so far as I can recall) who they were.  What she wanted from me was to get one person from Not Dead Yet to show up to be in the audience for the taping - where, they would probably get to ask one question or make one statement.

After getting her office phone number, I told her I'd see what I could do and went to discuss the issue with Diane Coleman.

To make a long story short, we were faced with trying to get someone from the Los Angeles area to commit to go with very little warning. That individual would then be faced with trying to arrange transportation to the show - not an easy thing in the LA area for the chair-users we knew.   It seemed like an awful lot of work to ask of someone else - a commitment which would eat up a significant portion of their day - for the possibility they might get to ask one question or make one statement.  This in the context of a show that looked rigged to go very much against people with disabilities.

We reached the conclusion that the best thing was to refuse to cooperate with the show.

I called the producer back and explained that we decided not to even try to get someone to the show and started to explain why.  We believed the show was a bad idea, plain and simple.  They were going to have some 'experts' on a stage - none of whom knew anything about supports for people with disabilities or how disabled people can have a great quality of life with supports - and discuss whether the killing of Michael and Andy Scott were "real" murders.  I explained that there was a nationwide trend for the murders of disabled people to be treated as insignificant, compared to other deadly incidents of domestic violence.  Further, it was clear that the pattern didn't result so much from sympathy for the killer as it did from devaluing and objectification of the victims.

I said it was offensive to put the worth of the lives of disabled people on trial as an entertainment exercise.

She disagreed with the characterization.  I assured her that we would be willing to issue a national press release as soon as we watched the episode (which I had no doubt would meet our expectations).

In the end, the show never aired - which means, I guess, that they never actually did that show.

Maybe the threat of a press release and negative publicity resulted in the decision not to go with the show.  But I suspect that if it was anything I said at the time that actually had an impact it was near the end of the conversation.

I had gone back to the issue that the idea of debating the value of disabled lives for entertainment was offensive and she told me that she didn't think it was.  I told her, that as a white male, when black women tell me a certain portrayal of them is offensive I trust and respect their evaluations over the assurances of other white males that there's no problem.  After a slight pause, she responded quietly with, "well, I am a black woman and I know what you mean."  The call closed with my promise that I'd keep a lookout for the particular show when the Dr. Phil Show started airing.  After two months of watching the TV schedule diligently, I gave up and figured they just didn't do it.

Well, that was then - Dr. Phil has been on the air for almost ten years.  And he's shown a tendency to jump on headlines and to exploit breaking human interest stories - and the people at the center of them with enthusiasm. You can check out the Wikipedia entry on "Dr. Phil" to see a series of his greatest hits - accusations of unethical conduct, and various other not-so-nice things - most having to do with the good doctor having done something involving the exploitation of a situation or someone's personal trauma to boost his show, his ratings and his 'brand.'  This MSNBC news story about accusations of exploiting Britney Spears' very public emotional meltdown(s) back in 2008 is also very informative about the "ethical grounding" of good ol' Dr. Phil.

So I guess it wasn't really all that surprising when Dr. Phil and his staff took notice of the controversy - and attention - garnered by Global News in Canada with its 'Taking Mercy' show which promoted the idea that parents should be able to kill their children who have intellectual disabilities.  The show centered around Annette Corriveau, who has two adult children who have a progressive genetic condition called Sanfilippo syndrome.  It aired on April 13, 2012.

Since, as usual, the main concern of Dr. Phil and his staff is providing programming that will grab attention, there was no honest exploration of ethical issues when he, in turn, had Annette Corriveau on his show.  In addition to Corriveau, he had Geoffrey Fieger - who not only defended Kevorkian, but also helped him pick out and eliminate 'candidates' for assisted suicide based on what he believed Kevorkian could get away with.  Fieger has never criticized any homicide labelled a 'mercy killing' that he's been asked to comment on.  The third 'guest' was a woman identified only by her first name - 'Ruthi' - who is described as having four birth children and three step children; we're also told that three of her children have 'special needs' and suffer from disorders.  She is appalled at the idea of killing people with intellectual disabilities.

The show opens with a brief intro of Corriveau. After that, we're treated to an interview of her conducted by one of the producers while video from the 'Taking Mercy' show runs in the background.

Over the course of the opening (which takes over half of the show segment) we are shown and/or told the following:
  • Video shows Corriveau's two children from childhood to recent pictures as adults.
  • Aside from the cognitive and physical disabilities developed as a result of the condition, much is made of the changes in their appearance as they got older (implying the 'not normal' appearance is also tragic).
  • She institutionalized them both when they were young.
  • She visits them every two months, but doesn't touch them, because they don't react to her.  We hear nothing about whether or not they react to staff people they see every day..
After that, Dr. Phil does a little back and forth with Corriveau, making mild protests about not knowing what they would want and how it's different from withholding treatment.  He also says he wouldn't want to live "like that."

Next he goes to Geoffrey Fieger, who says what she wants is perfectly reasonable and merciful and that the law is stupid.  No one who knows anything about Fieger can be surprised by his take on this - not even Dr. Phil - but I suspect he invited Fieger on the show precisely because he knows what Fieger's take will be.

Next he goes to 'Ruthi.'  We don't get to see any videos of Ruthi's kids.  She might be an articulate advocate in other venues, but she's been outmatched here.  Not only does the "I want to kill my kids" mom have the stage, but interruptions by Corriveau and Fieger eat up over half of the little time Ruthi has to voice her objections to what is being promoted that day.

Next - he asks for a show of hands from the audience - how many agree that Corriveau should be able to 'mercifully' kill her kids?  It's no surprise that an audience that has sat through a presentation in which Corriveau's honesty, compassion or motives are never questioned - and backed by a leading advocate of anything that gets called 'mercy killing' (Fieger) - about 90% of the audience back Corriveau.  By doing so, they've also written off the lives of anyone with a significant cognitive disability.  It's a bad day for people with disabilities, but a great day for Dr. Phil - who loves great theater.

There's a feature after every show called "Dr. Phil Uncensored."  You can check the link and track down the one for the show "Deadly Consequences" - the obviously scripted interaction between Dr. Phil and his staff is pure bullshit from beginning to end regarding the 'mercy killing' segment.  They express surprise over the audience vote and congratulate themselves, saying that "all the arguments were brought to the table" and that  "we got both sides out".  That's just crap - they're all too smart not to know they loaded the dice and ended up with exactly the show they planned on.  They're just counting on audience gullibility.

This is a link to the main story site of "Deadly Consequences."

As another person outraged about this said on Facebook, Dr. Phil really is no different - or better - than  Jerry Springer, who reigned for years as the exploitation circus king.  The difference between Dr. Phil and Springer is that Springer never seriously claimed to be 'helping' anyone.  Far too many of Dr. Phil's fans think he's some sort of kind professional, when in fact he's just another self-promoting entrepeneur working hard to separate gullible people from their money.


  1. Fantastic post, Stephen. Leave it to Oprah's stable of kept men to lower the bar even further for television programming.

  2. Thank you, Steven. Great post.

  3. Thank you!

    Kelly Rodriguez

  4. I hated tv for years. I was not very sad when I became physically sensitive to the electrical wiring(?) of the tv set and stop watching in the early 1990s. So, I missed the whole "Dr. Phil" thing. How lucky I am. Did Jerry Springer ever do anything with disability, and/or from a negative point of view?

    One note about Huntington's, which I know as Huntington's Corea. My roommate in my freshman year at Oswego State (now SUNY)left mid-year because her father, a lab biologist, had been diagnosed with Huntington's Corea (1956). I also know that Woody Guthrie had the disease. The story of Woody Guthrie's treatment in a Brooklyn mental hospital, with family taking him out on weekends, noting how thin he was because nobody would help him eat, makes me cry and get really angry at stupidity of the medical profession, now as well as then, several decades ago. (Source for Guthrie story was radio interview with his daughter that I heard.) It's a neurological disease that's progressive. Can you imagine anyone shooting Woody Guthrie or my friend, Ciese's father? Is it different for young people or people who are not famous? Why?

  5. Dr. Phil's show is so cringe worthy I cannot watch it.
    I would not have heard about this awful show if not for your detailed post. Thank you.

  6. Thank you for sharing this, people need to understand that there is no such thing as a mercy killing. Murder is murder, and we should protect the most vulnerable among us, not exterminate them.

  7. This reminds me of what the Nazi's did in Germany to desensitize the population in order to carry out the T-4 program. Geoffrey Fieger would make Karl Brandt proud. He just makes me sick.

  8. One of Dr. Phil's statements is... "People treat you like you let them treat
    you" Can't let Dr. Phil treat us as flushable human waste.

  9. We see in such shows how attitudes are formed about us (people with disabilities). People that have no clue were polled and 90% came up with the idea "we are better off dead" This parent does not touch her children? This parent only visits occationally because it is too hard to look at her children? We are worthy of life. We are worthy of choice. If we are not able to make a choice, then we are STILL worthy of life.

    Those that do not, or cannot understand us, or see us as too different to be worthy of life.... CANNOT be permitted to kill us.

    "Mercy", in the killing, is not for the person with a disability. The only mercy in the killing of people with disabilities is for the killers peace of mind... This "Mother" does not want to "put her children out of THEIR misery", she wants to put them out of HER misery.