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Nearly a month after he publicized his efforts to counsel pop star Britney Spears, “Dr. Phil” McGraw defended his intentions as non-exploitative.
Given the chance to do it again, McGraw told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer, he would not release a statement about his controversial hospital visit to Spears on Jan. 5.
But when Lauer pressed the syndicated show host on whether he did it for the appeal of good television and even better ratings, McGraw insisted self-promotion was not his intent.
“I can tell you it didn’t cross my mind because we never intended to do a show with Britney at all,” McGraw said. “I was followed into the hospital, I was followed out of the hospital. I didn’t need to draw attention to the fact that I had been there.
“They were taking my picture as I went in and they were taking my picture as I went out. So there was no attempt to stoke the fire at that point.
“If you notice in that statement I said not a word, not one syllable about anything that took place while I was there. Nor will I ever. I don’t think that would be right. And I didn’t say anything in the statement that I haven’t said before and that anybody with common sense doesn’t know.”
Timeline of trouble
The firestorm surrounding McGraw began on Jan. 3 when Spears was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for a psychological evaluation after a child custody dispute with ex-husband Kevin Federline.
McGraw paid a visit to the pop star two days later, just as she was being released from the hospital, and issued the following statement:
“My meeting with Britney and some of her family members this morning in her room at Cedars leaves me convinced more than ever that she is in dire need of both medical and psychological intervention.”
As a groundswell of criticism from the psychiatric community began, McGraw canceled a planned show about Spears’ situation, citing that the situation was “too intense at this time.”
McGraw reiterated to “Entertainment Tonight” and “The Insider” that he went to see Spears on the request of her family, but also told the shows “she needs to be in treatment.”
On Jan. 9, Lou Taylor, a business manager for Spears’ mother, Lynne, and daughter, Jamie Lynn, appeared on the TODAY Show and said McGraw had betrayed the family’s trust by talking to the media about his visit with Britney.
“What’s wrong with Dr. Phil’s statement is that he made a statement,” Taylor told TODAY Show host Meredith Vieira.
“The family basically extended an invitation of trust for him to come in as a resource to support them, not to go out and make public statements. Any statements publicly that he made, because he was brought in under this cloak of trust, are just inappropriate.”
Taylor also denied the family had confirmed to do a show with Dr. Phil.
Last Monday, McGraw took to the air of his syndicated show and softened his defense of the situation — but refused to apologize for trying to help Spears.
“If I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t say a word,” McGraw said. “But let me be clear, I certainly do not apologize for trying to help this family or this girl in trouble.”
McGraw added: “My intentions were good and I wish it had helped or had some positive effect, but clearly it did not.”
Question of credentials
Mental health professionals have been critical of McGraw and some have challenged that he couldn’t legally practice psychology with Spears.
McGraw allowed his psychology license to lapse in Texas and has never had one in California, where his daily show is taped.
In 2002, the California Board of Psychology determined that McGraw did not need his license for the purposes of his show because he was “doing more entertainment than psychology.”
There have been reports that a complaint against McGraw has been filed with the California Board of Psychology, but the board does not comment on filed complaints. (A spokesman for McGraw told TV Guide that those reports are false.)
In a TODAY Show report earlier this month, law professor Jonathan Turley said: “There is a clear line in the law between entertaining people and treating people. Now, when Dr. Phil becomes Dr. McGraw and leaves the studio and goes to a hospital, he’s putting himself and potentially a patient in jeopardy.”
Section 2903 of the California Business and Professions Code offers defense of McGraw, stating: “The practice of psychology is defined as rendering or offering to render for a fee ... any psychological service involving the application of psychological principles, methods and procedures ... [such as] the methods and procedures of interviewing, counseling, psychotherapy, behavior modification and hypnosis.”
McGraw, now and since his TV show took flight in 2002, said he does not practice, nor believe in, traditional psychology.
“I make it very, very clear,” McGraw told Lauer. “I say it on my show, you’ve heard me say it, and I say it on my Web site, I don’t do therapy, I don’t do medical therapy, I don’t do individual therapy, I don’t do couples therapy ...
“But, Matt, that doesn’t mean that when I retired from psychology after 25 years that I checked my brain at the door, that I checked my experience at the door, that I checked all of my contacts and the ability to take people to the right sort of care at the door.”
McGraw told Lauer that he did understand some of the criticism he has received, but had grown tired of inaccurate media reports about the fallout from the episode.
“Look, I have been on television for 11 years and I totally get that I’ve got a bright light over my bald head,” he said. “Listen, I am not above question, I am not above criticism, I am not above challenge ... I just want to make sure they get it right.”
McGraw, who is also promoting the 1,000th episode of his show, said he has not spoken to the Spears family since the controversy erupted, but wishes them well.
“They have always initiated contacts with me and, listen, they’re good people. They’re in a difficult situation, but these are good people, I have no ill will against them and if they made another call — my wife talks to Lynne much more than I do — I’m sure she would take that call.
“So I wish them well. I wish her well. I deal with real people in the real world, with real issues.”