“It’s Dr. Drew!” yelled host Nick Cannon as Drew Pinsky took off his elaborate mask to audience cheers. “From ‘Loveline!’”
Three decades ago, if you told someone that Dr. Drew — the levelheaded physician who dispensed medical and personal advice on the massively popular radio show starting in 1984 — would go on to become a celebrity, headline a polarizing “Celebrity Rehab” reality-show franchise, and compete on a bizarre singing-competition series, they probably would not have believed you. They probably would have been equally incredulous that Pinsky would become embroiled in a controversy in which he initially downplayed the seriousness of a global pandemic, comparing it to the flu. But Pinksy’s evolution over the years from stalwart doctor to reality TV headliner has taken unusual twists and turns.
On April 2, a social media user posted a compilation of comments made by Pinsky from February through mid-March about the novel coronavirus and its subsequent media coverage. In various podcast and television appearances, he called covid-19 “way less serious than influenza”; referred to it as “a press-induced panic”; said “the flu virus in this country is vastly more consequential,” and compared the probability of dying from the disease to being “hit by an asteroid.” The montage — which has been viewed more than 4 million times — was followed by a long apology from Pinsky, released in Periscope videos.
“My early comments about equating coronavirus with influenza were wrong. They were incorrect. It was part of a chorus that was saying that and we were wrong. And I want to apologize for that. I wish I got it right, but I got it wrong,” Pinsky said. He added he didn’t fully understand the virus’s ferocity, and his comparing influenza and coronavirus statistics was based on “loserthink,” a term coined by “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams referring to “sneaky mental habits trapping victims in their own bubbles of reality.”
Pinsky, who said he had received death threats in recent days, emphasized he also always advised people to listen to the Centers for Disease Control and immunologist Anthony S. Fauci, whom he called his “north star” since the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s: “When Dr. Fauci made it clear that this was not a usual influenza, that it was significantly worse, I adjusted course.” His intention, he said, “was to try to lessen the panic that I could see coming.”
One reason the backlash against Pinsky hit a nerve is that some on social media were dismayed to see someone they respected from his days as a “Loveline” radio host be so wrong about such a critically important issue. Though Pinsky has made lots of headlines for controversies throughout his years working on reality TV, like Cannon on “Masked Singer,” many still associate him with his 30 years as a trusted adviser to young people looking for guidance about deeply personal problems.
“I value and cherish their respect, making the fact that they felt disappointed that much more painful,” Pinsky said in an email to The Washington Post. “My goal has always been simply to find ways to use media to do good. Having learned from my error, I humbly hope that I may continue to look for opportunities to do so.”
In 2007, VH1 announced the debut of “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” an unflinching look at addicts going through detox and rehabilitation at a treatment center in California. With cast members from Daniel Baldwin to Brigitte Nielsen, the series received plenty of attention — and even more skepticism. How could addicts attempt recovery in front of cameras?
But there appeared to be one especially comforting factor for the network: Dr. Drew’s involvement. Pinsky, the host and executive producer who pitched the show, had built up credibility from his years offering advice on “Loveline” — adapted in 1996 into a series that aired for five seasons on MTV, which shares a parent company with VH1 — and was the go-to TV commentator on health and addiction. A New York Times profile in 2008 noted his “easygoing, nonjudgmental manner” won over young listeners, and dubbed him the “Gen-X answer to Dr. Ruth Westheimer, with an AIDS-era, pro-safe-sex message.”
At the time, tabloids were obsessively covering Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan’s trips to rehab, and Pinsky said he was tired of seeing treatment programs portrayed as a celebrity indulgence. His goal was to bring awareness to how brutal addiction could be, he said, and what rehabilitation really entailed. Maybe someone would recognize their own behavior and realize they needed help. “I wasn’t clear this was a good idea,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. “It sounds exploitive; it certainly could have been, but for the grace of God, I don’t think it was. … Ultimately, I was responsible for treatment, not a good TV show.”
In an email, Pinsky told The Post that cast members were often reluctant to participate, but changed course when they saw how seriously the staff took the process. “We insisted that patients be given one year of psychiatric care following the initial treatment,” Pinsky said, adding that scenes filmed for the show were separate from priorities of their care. “I do believe we helped increase an understanding and awareness of the struggles of addiction and the challenges of treatment. And as the opiate epidemic has unfolded in the public consciousness, I think people understand now even more vividly how serious this condition is.”
Early stories called Pinsky the possible “saving grace” of the series and noted his “articulate compassion.” But plenty slammed it as exploitative and unethical. “Pinsky’s professional expertise and rational demeanor set him apart from hyperventilating peers in the commentator business,” Los Angeles Magazine wrote in 2010. “Others see in his TV programs the shadow of addiction tourism. The man in the tight blue shirt has been called a fame junkie and a manipulator of other people’s misery.”
As the show became a hit and spawned spinoffs such as “Sober House” and “Sex Rehab,” the criticism grew more intense. Season 1 cast member Jessica Sierra was arrested after a confrontation with police before the series even aired. Tom Sizemore and Heidi Fleiss were both cast on Season 3, even though he was previously convicted of domestic violence against her. Backlash hit a peak in 2013 when Mindy McCready, who appeared in Season 3 in 2009, committed suicide. She was the fifth former “Celebrity Rehab” contestant to die in the span of two years.
Pinsky sat for multiple interviews to respond to the criticism. “In a weird way, I wish I could claim more responsibility for this. The reality is, though, I haven’t seen Mindy, say, in years. I’ve talked to her occasionally, we’ve been friendly, but I’ve not been her doctor in years,” he said on “The View” when asked if her televised treatment had a negative impact. Others spoke up to defend him, given the complicated nature of addiction, but the debate raged. The last season of “Celebrity Rehab” aired in fall 2012, and Pinsky said he had no plans to continue, partly because he felt he was being unfairly blamed for the death of participants well after they left the show.
In late March, about a week before his video apology, Pinsky appeared on the Ora TV show “PoliticKING with Larry King.” Pinsky was not happy that a recent New York Times story listed him alongside Sean Hannity and Jerry Falwell Jr. as a “coronavirus doubter”; it quoted a March 16 episode of his online series “Dose of Dr. Drew” with comedian Rob Schneider, who called coronavirus a “mild flu” and railed against the media, and said local mayors were “idiots” for shutting down businesses. While Pinsky was more cautious, saying coronavirus was different from the flu, he agreed healthy people should be able to go “about their business.” He also didn’t correct Schneider when he said the “19” in “covid-19” meant that there have been 18 previous coronaviruses.
“I’m not doubting anything,” Pinsky told King, and said he had always followed the CDC and urged others to do the same; when they updated to stricter guidelines, so did he. He said he was concerned about the panic being worse than the disease with the proliferation of what he called “doomsday” scenarios, such as publications reporting on a study from the Imperial College of London that projected 500,000 deaths in Britain, a number that was later lowered when the models were altered to reflect the effects of social distancing instead of no mitigation efforts. “We don’t have to have a press making us panic.”
When asked about what he thinks of the media coverage now and if his views have changed, Pinsky told The Post, “My goal was always to try to get people to regulate their emotional response to this pandemic so as to prevent people from flying into a panic. I have decades of experience in U.S. health care which gives me a profound confidence in our ability to flex, improvise and innovate in the face of enormous challenges. I wish there had been greater emphasis upon the U.S. health-care system, as well as Dr. Fauci and the CDC’s ability to meet the demands of the crisis.”
Pinsky further slammed the media in his appearance on King’s show, after King asked how he had been labeled a denier, saying things were being reported that were “actually factually, grotesquely inaccurate.” While Pinsky didn’t elaborate, the Times story also mentioned the cancellation of his HLN show in 2016, which was announced several days after he questioned the health of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. While Pinsky’s publicist and others insisted the timing was coincidental, saying the network had already made the decision weeks earlier because it was rebranding its entire lineup, some linked the two incidents.
At the time, the Daily Beast speculated the show cancellation could be the final straw in controversies spelling the end for Dr. Drew, but that was not the case: He currently hosts multiple podcasts and online series and remains a frequent TV presence (even though sometimes he’s dressed as an eagle). Though now, given the still-growing global and domestic impact of the pandemic, Pinsky’s goodwill from some fans may be more difficult to earn back.
“Dr. Drew has made an important positive impact over the years as an MD in the media … but he was never on the cutting edge of medicine, and, given his media work, could not possibly have devoted the same amount of his time to his practice and medicine as a full-time MD not on radio and television,” said Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University. “The important lesson here is that the public should look for the most accurate medical information and analysis from doctors who spend all of their time practicing medicine or doing medical research.”