The newest season of CBS’ Dr. Phil has regularly featured right-wing personalities, including anti-abortion activists, Fox News and PragerU personalities, and members of far-right student and parent groups, giving them platforms to share misinformation and hate.
This trend appears to be a distinct turn for the show in contrast to the previous season. Dr. Phil now tackles conservative culture war issues like critical race theory, transgender athletes, “cancel culture,” cultural appropriation, and abortion.
During the previous season that began in September 2021, the first 25 episodes included 15 episodes on personal family stories, 8 on true crime, and just 2 focused on societal topics described as being “in the news”: "dynamic" seniors and bad flying experiences. Of the first 25 episodes of the current season, 24 have focused on general societal topics, with only one true crime-focused episode and no episodes surrounding personal conflicts.
Season 20 did include two appearances from particularly bigoted right-wing media personalities. Matt Walsh of The Daily Wire appeared in an episode in January focused on nonbinary and transgender identity. Right-wing media used the episode to spread hate against nonbinary and transgender people online, and it has since been erased from Hulu, Dr. Phil’s site, and YouTube. And right-wing troll James Lindsay appeared in January 2022 to discuss critical race theory in schools, comparing it to neo-Marxism.
These types of guests are now commonplace. In many instances, host Phil McGraw does not provide background on the groups his guests represent.
One of the show’s newest episodes, which tackled supposed cancel culture and featured Fox News personality Tomi Lahren, caught the attention of her employer, with McGraw making an appearance on Hannity to discuss it. McGraw cited a statistic from libertarian think tank the CATO Institute that “almost two-thirds of Americans are afraid to speak out for fear that they will say something they shouldn’t say” and ended his interview saying, “We don’t have to get offended every time we have the chance to be offended.”
Here are a number of the many appearances by right-wing influencers in 2022:
- Anti-abortion activist Lila Rose appeared as a guest during the September 12 episode, titled “Carry to Bury: The Abortion Debate.” Rose, the founder of the anti-abortion group Live Action, argued with an audience member, calling abortion “the intentional destruction of an innocent human life.” Rose also falsely stated that “abortion is devastating to women’s mental health” though data shows restricting access to abortion is more likely to cause mental health issues in women.
- Federalist contributor and member of the conservative women’s group Independent Women's Network Asra Nomani was a guest on the September 15 episode, where she advocated for a mother who claims her child was using different pronouns at school and no one from the school notified her. Nomani pushed for parental involvement in conversations around students’ gender identity.
- During the September 30 episode, PragerU host Will Witt claimed cultural appropriation is actually appreciation because “you can’t claim that something is just a part of your culture either. It’s for people to share and celebrate and use.” Witt also said that Native Americans he spoke with “wanted people to come and say ‘geronimo,’ they wanted planes named the Apache helicopter, they wanted the Washington Redskins as their sports team to celebrate their culture.” Many Native American groups actually pushed for Washington’s football team to change their name and said they found the use of “Redskin” offensive.
- Another PragerU podcast host and conservative activist, Amala Ekpunobi, appeared in the same September 30 episode. Ekpunobi argued with panelists who claimed cultural appropriation is a problem and pushed back against definitions of cultural appropriation with a slew of irrelevant questions.
- Fox News and Outkick commentator Tomi Lahren appeared on the October 10 show to talk about “cancel culture” and how it has impacted her. During her segment, Lahren claimed that “it seems to be mostly conservatives that are mostly targeted by this cancel culture.” Dr. Phil aired footage from right-wing student group Turning Point USA of a recent college event where Lahren was slated to speak and protests “turned violent,” causing her to be escorted out by police.
- In part two of the episode on cancel culture, aired on October 11, members of the right-wing student group Young America’s Foundation claimed they experienced censorship or cancellation after posting anti-abortion and anti-leftist flyers on their college campus. In a previously recorded segment, members of the group claimed they promoted “traditional American values” like “free speech.” The flyers shown on air said “the leftists lie” and “beware the destructive influences and blind arrogance of the left.” YAF claimed the fliers were posted in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In an interview with Dr. Phil, one member of YAF claimed that “the faculty conspired together … to suppress our speech.”
- During an episode published October 12 about harm reduction in communities with drug abuse crisis, frequent Fox News guest and climate contrarian Michael Shellenberger was identified as someone who said “our country has gone soft on drugs.” Shellenberger stated that housing should be “earned” by drug abusers, noting that “the reward for being off drugs is that you get an apartment.” Along with host Dr. Phil, Shellenberger continuously refuted data and facts stated by addiction specialist Maia Szalavitz, claiming harm reduction strategies used in Europe are not the same as proposed plans for California and their strategies would not work in the United States. It has been shown that harm reduction strategies have been successful in reducing deaths from drug overdoses in other countries.
- Right-wing commentator Brad Polumbo appeared during the October 14 episode, which put Generation Z influencers against Baby Boomers in a discussion about the differences between age groups. Polumbo claimed that Gen Z is getting free speech wrong, stating that “they think things like hate speech need to be stopped” making air quotation marks around the phrase “hate speech.” Polumbo also fought back against fellow panel members who called repercussions for saying offensive things a “positive thing” by stating, “You’re not free to say whatever you want if you get fired for an off-color joke.”
- Conservative author Greg Lukianoff spoke out against Gen Z influencers in the October 14 episode who said it’s normal to have repercussions for offensive language by claiming, “The idea that this is just business as usual is just wrong.” Lukianoff also claimed the number of “canceled” college professors is out of control: “You didn’t have these kinds of numbers even during McCarthyism.” Lukianoff also appeared in the October 10 episode to discuss cancel culture, and he and Dr. Phil implied that watching Will Smith slap Chris Rock at the Oscars may have led to the attack on Salman Rushdie in a kind of “contagion effect.”
- Co-founders of the far-right “parental rights” group Moms for Liberty Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich appeared on the show on October 19 to advocate in favor of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and similar legislation for all 50 states. While explaining Moms for Liberty’s plan to ban predominantly LGBTQ books from school libraries, Descovich claimed that “it’s unfortunate that many LGBTQ books have so much sexual violence in them.” This year saw “unprecedented” attempts at book bans across the country, with LGBTQ-themed books often the target.
Justice and another member of Moms for Liberty, Quisha King, also appeared on the show in January 2022 in an episode focused on critical race theory. The show described Justice and King as believing “CRT is being taught in K-12 schools and is poisoning the minds of their children.”
McGraw has occasionally platformed well-known right-wing figures on his show in the past. In February 2019, far-right extremists Ben Shapiro and Andy Ngo made appearances on an episode about Jussie Smollet lying about being a victim of a hate crime. During the episode, Shapiro claimed the mainstream media refused to cover hate crimes not committed by white supremacists because they don't fit their narrative. Shapiro appeared on Dr. Philagain in March of 2019 to promote his book, The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great, which McGraw called “very well done.”
In October of this year Dr. Phil was the second most-watched talk show in the US, just behind Live with Kelly and Ryan. Last season the show averaged 2.405 million viewers nationwide during the 2021-2022 TV season.
Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.