In the world of network television news, longtime ABC reporter John Stossel is the exception that proves the rule. The rule is that when ABC and the other networks prepare hard-hitting investigative reports with totally familiar bogeymen -- like the oil companies -- they're the conscience of the country. It is the exception when one puts together a hard-hitting, investigative report that whacks at unfamiliar targets, like environmentalists. It is for that transgression that liberals are demanding Stossel's programs be censored and that he should be fired as unprofessional.
Take the recent controversy over Stossel's special, "Tampering With Nature." The Environmental Working Group, an industry-hating group of environmental extremists, has been attempting to get Stossel fired. In its latest attempt to silence him, the group excited some parents whose children were interviewed about global warming and other environmental horror stories. EWG-prodded parents objected to Stossel allegedly leading the children into "pro-environment" answers, which, when countered by Stossel, would demonstrate that what children are taught in schools and, to be sure, on TV newscasts, is wrong.
In a group letter sent to Stossel, seven parents complained producers "misrepresented the nature of the piece," adding that he "asked leading questions to get them to say what you wanted." They said they wanted ABC to remove all footage that involved their children's voices and images. The network properly did.
But what if Peter Jennings, or another ABC environmental reporter (say, Leonardo Di Caprio), asked all the same leading questions and received all the same doomsday-scenario answers? One, Jennings and Co. would never think of correcting them. Two, their organic-juice-bar operator parents in Santa Monica, Calif., would have been delighted. The moral of the story: It's OK for kids to spout spoon-fed claptrap on national television, as long as they're presented as precocious instead of gullible.
But Stossel was the skunk at the party. His goal was to tell the truth, not fairy tales.
The timing of this liberal attack on Stossel -- highly covered by the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and followed by CNN and Fox -- clearly shows how the EWG organized it for maximum negative impact. These parents were in the room when their kids were interviewed. They saw John Stossel interview them. No one at the time complained. They said nothing for two months. But somehow on the eve of the broadcast they -- bang! -- were upset. They didn't come across as concerned parents; they looked like pawns who had been manipulated by this left-wing group in search of a stick-it-to-Stossel publicity splash.
On the footage that ABC pulled, Stossel asks the children whether they thought America is more polluted, and if the air and water are dirtier than they used to be -- a straightforward factual inquiry. When the children say yes, Stossel says on the tape: "What sad distortions to feed children." He said later in an interview with Fox's Bill O'Reilly that educators "shouldn't be scaring people the way they are."
But liberals are all for scaring kids senseless if it leads to the right political result. The last thing the political left wants is to have its efforts exposed, and this Stossel had done, brilliantly. Unfortunately, these sad distortions are no doubt shared by vast numbers of American adults, who usually see one-hour specials on the environment hosted by PBS scold Bill Moyers, or Ted Turner-inspired rant fests on CNN. They get them in smaller doses from everyday TV journalists, hawking ridiculous stories like President Bush's alleged advocacy of more arsenic in drinking water. In his classic book "The Ultimate Resource," Julian Simon puts on display all the government charts that show how media coverage wallows in error: Pollution was decreasing even before the Clean Air Act, and prices of supposedly scarce commodities from food to industrial metals have been on a consistently downward slope.
As a parent myself, I find it insulting and appalling that both adults and children are consistently bombarded with advocacy journalism that misleads and misinforms the very public to which the media are responsible. Liberals laugh at the duck-and-cover films of the 1950s, but that's exactly the same sort of questionable fear they've been selling to children about pollution and nuclear war since the 1960s.
On a highfalutin topic like the environment, most journalists have decided there is no time for disagreement, no space for democracy, no reason for balance. One side is right, and therefore just; the other side is simply evil. What the silly censors at the Environmental Working Group are protesting is that someone might dare to question their propaganda. Their definition of a journalistic professional is not someone aglow in ascetic objectivity. It's someone who takes their stop-freedom-now press releases and puts them in pretty packages of panic without asking any troublesome questions.
What must be driving the EWG and all its left-wing cronies bananas today is that, after all their hard work to discredit Stossel, and after all the controversy they created, he still managed to deliver the single highest-rated program that night on all of television.