Write for Oprah? Wrong for Me

From January through June of 2010 I wrote a column entitled “The Health Inspector” in O, The Oprah Magazine. Now, apparently, I have been fired; although they have not had the common courtesy to tell me so. The whole thing has been a bizarre, frustrating experience. 

It started last fall, when I got an e-mail from Tyler Graham. He introduced himself as the new health editor for O, The Oprah Magazine, saying he had only been on the job for 2 weeks. He had read my work in Skeptic magazine and wanted me to write a column for O. I thought long and hard before accepting. I told Mr. Graham my opinion of Oprah and of her chosen medical expert Dr. Oz and why I was hesitant to associate my name with theirs, and he seemed to understand. Oprah has been widely criticized recently, even in the pages of Newsweek, for endorsing pseudoscientific and non-scientific health advice on her TV show.   As for Dr. Oz, while he mostly gives good medical advice, he has appalling lapses into non-science-based practices like Reiki, and he has even invited energy healers into his OR to assist in open-heart surgery cases by waving their hands over the patients. I foolishly assumed Mr.Graham was trying to improve Oprah’s image by introducing more science and skepticism to the magazine.  I decided to accept, for three reasons:

  1. It was a chance to get my name and a mention of the Science-Based Medicine blog before a large readership (O’s circulation is nearly 3 million).
  2. I could make sure that at least my one little corner of the magazine was scientifically rigorous.
  3. They were going to pay me. Not much, and I didn’t need the money, but you must understand that I had never before been paid a single penny for writing anything. My writing has been entirely pro bono. The idea of my writing finally being recognized as having monetary value was seductive.

 The skeptical community was delighted to learn that the SkepDoc had infiltrated Oprahdom. One young man tweeted, “Dude, Hell just froze over!” I’m afraid the celebration was premature. 

It soon became obvious that I would be working under strict limitations and tight editorial control. Initially the editor specified a 200 word limit. I protested that it was next to impossible to say anything meaningful in 200 words, so he increased it to a whopping 250 words. (For comparison, my SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine usually runs around 1600 words.) I would only be allowed to write about debunking common health myths. I figured that was worthwhile doing, and I foolishly hoped it might eventually develop into opportunities more akin to my interests. 

The editor pretty much dictated what myths I could write about. He consistently shot down every suggestion I made. At one point I received a contract with a short deadline to write about a subject that no one had even mentioned to me yet. When I protested, the editor’s excuse was that his assistant was merely being proactive. 

The one time he accepted a suggestion of mine, it didn’t work out. He said the April issue was to be about relationships, so I suggested the myth that “opposites attract.” He said “Perfect” and I proceeded to write about that. I got back a critique from the editor above him that picked apart my points, asked for references, and asked for “more science” where there really wasn’t any good science. I re-wrote. At about that point (late January), Tyler Graham was let go and I was contacted by his replacement, Jennifer Rainey Marquez. She told me that the editor-in-chief thought the subject was overkill, since the issue already included other relationship-themed stories (I thought that was the reason for picking the subject in the first place!?). The editor-in-chief thought the subject was a poor choice and not one readers were concerned about. She objected that science didn’t support a firm conclusion (I had basically asked “do opposites attract?,” looked at the published studies, and answered probably not but the evidence isn’t 100% conclusive). So they decided not to run that column and they paid me a 25% “kill fee.” 

In January, February and March they ran my columns on the myths that we lose most of our body heat through the head, that eating late at night makes you fat, and that drinking soda causes bone loss. The April column was killed. The May issue was a special issue with no regular columns. I was scheduled to write again for the June issue, and at their request I wrote about “Does our height shrink as we age?” (Yes, some shrinkage is normal, but a loss of more than 2 inches may indicate osteoporosis). My original draft was returned to me with questions: the text of the questions vastly exceeded the size of the draft itself. I tried to answer her questions, but pointed out that explaining everything she wanted explained could not possibly be accomplished in 250 words. She answered that she was only trying to anticipate all the questions the editor above her might possibly ask her and that she would condense as needed. 

I was told they had to hold the “shrinking” article for space in the June issue and I was asked to write about Toxic Shock Syndrome (Why don’t we read about it in the news any more? Does it still exist?).  Notice that they are no longer asking me to write about debunking common health myths; they never discussed the change of focus with me.  I wrote about TSS, and got another detailed list of questions. I got seriously annoyed at the pickiness, because I got the feeling that if I said “Good morning” I would be challenged to define and quantify “good” and give a reference to prove what hours constituted “morning,” and explain why I would want to say “Good morning” in the first place and why such social conventions existed. I answered all the editor’s questions and then she re-wrote my column to where it was no longer recognizable as my work. The editor’s revision was published in the June issue complete with a couple of errors I had pointed out to her and asked her to correct. I was not happy to see it printed under my name. And in that issue, they omitted the tag identifying me as an editor of Science-Based Medicine.

 In essence, the editor had used me to do a bit of research and then had written her own article. I had been demoted from columnist to research assistant. And I don’t understand why one column was held for space yet they found space for the other one. 

In previous columns, several times my words were changed to something that was not exactly correct, and I had to protest and get it corrected. I also had several run-ins with the “Fact Checking” department where they were unable to verify what I had written. I had to point them back to the references I had already provided and show them how to read and interpret them. 

I never received either a check for the contracted $500 or a “kill fee” for the “shrinking” article. I asked if they were planning to use it in July. I got no answer. I was expecting further communications about future topics, but I heard nothing more from them. I e-mailed the editor several more times but got no answer.  Finally I sent an e-mail marked priority and asking for a “read” receipt. She answered that she hadn’t received my e-mails because of issues with her junk mail folder. She said she wasn’t sure what had happened with my column, that her editor has not said anything about it but that my column “never seems to get approved on any of the issue lineups” and that she guesses it is unlikely that her editor wants to move forward with the column. (She doesn’t offer to actually ask the editor.) She apologizes for not keeping me up to speed, but says the magazine is being redesigned and things have been up in the air so it has been difficult to judge. 

I was not impressed by her excuses but I was relieved; a great weight was lifted from my shoulders.  I had gotten to the point that when I saw an e-mail from the magazine I would get a sinking feeling and dread opening it. It has become clear to me that I don’t have what it takes to be a media whore. I’d much rather write independently without pay for a select few readers than be controlled and abused for $2 a word with an audience of millions. 

I’d be willing to bet that Dr. Oz has had a very different experience with the O editors.

Posted in: Science and the Media

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