Do We Want Netflix, Amazon and the Like Deciding What's Truthful?

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At least three dental organizations have written to Netflix asking it to take down a 2018 documentary. 'Root Cause' claims bacterial infections from root canals can lead to a host of serious illnesses, including breast cancer. (Courtesy of 'Root Cause')

Does Netflix—and for that matter, Amazon, Apple, Hulu, Vimeo and YouTube—have a duty to fact-check the documentaries they broadcast? It's a question worth asking as a controversy surfaces over one such 2018 film, Root Cause.

In the documentary, Australian filmmaker Frazer Bailey links a root canal procedure he received as a young man to later health problems like fatigue and depression. After exploring a host of New Age approaches to medicine, he talks to several dentists who agree that bacterial infections in the mouth caused by root canals lead to diseases elsewhere in the body: mental disease, heart disease, even arthritis. "The mouth is the toxic waste dump that's impacting on the rest of the body," says Dr. Gerald H. Smith, DDS, DNM

Three major dentistry associations disagree: the American Dental Association, American Association of Endodontists and American Association of Dental Research. They sent Netflix a private letter requesting that it drop the film. 

A spokeswoman for the AAE declined to share the letter, but she did write:

The people in this movie are spreading misinformation and confusion about root canal treatment that is misleading and harmful to the consumer public. Their premise is based on junk science and faulty testing conducted more than 100 years ago that was debunked in the 1950s, continuously since then, and is even more discredited today by physicians, dentists and academics. Mainstream medical and dental communities overwhelmingly agree that root canal treatment is safe, effective and eliminates pain.

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Here's the trailer:

Netflix declined to comment for this story.

Alex Ben Block writes about the business of entertainment for a variety of outlets. He says most of the documentaries he watches on Netflix are "benign." On the other hand, he says, programmers of content are "looking for provocative topics."

Like a number of its competitors, Netflix began as a distribution platform, but increasingly hosts original films and shows that it finances, produces, or both. One of its most recent partnerships is an upcoming series on health and well-being from Goop. Gwyneth Paltrow's media empire has come under fire for promoting dubious health products, most notoriously the jade egg, an egg-shaped jade or quartz stone Goop promised could help with hormone levels and bladder control if inserted into one's vagina.

Whether any health tips as far-fetched as the jade egg make it into Paltrow's Netflix series remains to be seen. But Block says it should be a concern. "Any time you're a powerful service seen by so many people, you really have a major social responsibility to present things that are accurate," he says—even more so than content procured from the outside, as was the case with Root Cause.

Then again, Block adds, "the viewer has some responsibility, too, to not just believe whatever they see."

When I asked my dentist, Rebecca Armel, DDS, in San Francisco, about 'Root Cause,' she wrote, 'Dentists as a whole think this idea is cuckoo. However, I have heard this theory before and I can understand some of the logic. Unfortunately, I don't think there is science to back it up.'
When I asked my dentist, Rebecca Armel, DDS, in San Francisco, about 'Root Cause,' she wrote, 'Dentists as a whole think this idea is cuckoo. However, I have heard this theory before and I can understand some of the logic. Unfortunately, I don't think there is science to back it up.' (Courtesy of 'Root Cause')

"The quality and the veritability of everything [on the Internet] is all over the spectrum," says Stacey Woelfel, who directs the documentary center at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Woelfel says many documentaries are more personal and engaging than factual. He suggests we consider this question through the lens of politics: do we want Netflix and other streaming platforms censoring, say, the lefty firebrand Michael Moore? Or his counterpoint on the right, Dinesh D'Souza?

Woelfel would much rather we do our own homework. "There’s no way for a consumer to decide without doing a little bit of research herself."

That means researching with credible sources. Pro tip: don't go looking for medical advice on YouTube or Facebook.

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