Dr. Melvin Levine used to be considered a childhood education expert. Now many consider him a pedophile — a charge he will never be able to defend. Levine died on Friday from an apparent suicide the same day a class action lawsuit was filed against him for sexual abuse. Attorney Carmen Durso represents some 40 patients of his who have stepped forward to make the allegations. This is not the first time such charges have been levied against the doctor.
Before his death, Levine kept a busy schedule of lectures and appearances, some of them high-profile, including an appearance on the Today Show where he was interviewed by Katie Couric. But none of his appearances were more high-profile than a series of visits he paid to Oprah Winfrey as a guest on her show, a fact that now has some folks scratching their heads.
The story first broke in the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Danielle touched upon Dr. Levine’s death on StrollerDerby on Saturday. Then Tom Matlack wrote about Levine on Sunday over at the GoodManProject. And yesterday, Tracie Egan Morrissey wrote an interesting piece on Jezebel that centered around the doctor in his capacity as Oprah’s go-to expert in the ways of childhood education and development. Morrissey categorizes Levine as yet another figure in Oprah’s long history of sketchy “experts” and endorsements.
In her piece, she makes an interesting point: “Seeing as how Oprah’s most successful ‘product’ these days is cultivating and grooming personalities into credible and trusted sources, a great deal of responsibility comes with that task.” According to Morrissey, this most recent suit against Levine (not to mention his suspiciously timed death) “raises the question of whether O[prah] is doing enough vetting of the authors and experts to whom she chooses to lend her credibility.”
It’s hard to disagree with Morrissey when you look at the long list of Oprah’s “experts” who did, indeed, turned out to be “sketchy.” Still, there’s another side to the argument. Given how long Oprah’s been around, and given how many people she’s endorsed, she’ll inevitably make a bad call or two. Amongst all of the Dr. Phils (who’s not a real doctor), there’s bound to be a Dr. Levine sprinkled in here and there. Thus, her proponents argue we should give her a break.
But it’s here where I must interject with a question or two:
Why does Oprah’s opinion matter so much? Why are we so dependent upon her to find our experts? Aren’t we, John and Suzi American, qualified enough to decide who our experts are? After all, it’s John and Suzi American who gave Oprah her crown in the first place.
My 9 year old is constantly wanting to do things which aren’t necessarily great ideas. When my wife and I tell her “no,” she frequently comes back with the same argument: “All my friends are doing it.” To which, we usually respond with “Sorry, honey. If all of your friends were jumping off a bridge, that still wouldn’t make it a great idea.”
Point? Oprah’s got tremendous clout. And whenever she hand selects an expert, be it Dr. Phil, Rachel Ray or whomever, that person generally experiences a surge in popularity. But just because everyone else thinks that person is an expert doesn’t necessarily make that person an expert.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not quick to throw the term “expert” around. And if I do, it’s typically because someone has proven him or herself to be an expert to me. We should be selecting our experts, and we shouldn’t be resorting to popularity contests to make those selections. Nor should we be depending upon a woman whom we don’t even know to find them for us, no matter how familiar her overwhelming media presence makes her seem.
I’m not mad at Oprah. And I don’t mean to attack her. She’s welcome to pick out whomever she wants to be the foremost authority in “this” or in “that.” And she’s welcome to have a million such people on her show.
But, to me, the question isn’t whether or not Oprah’s doing a good enough job in selecting those experts. To me the question is who made Oprah our expert-picker-outer in the first place? How did she get that responsibility?
Because I think it belongs to us.