Daytime TV needs a brain

Posted: Jul 21, 2000 12:00 AM
Tell-all transvestites. Half-naked soap opera stars. Vapid morning gabfests. Egomaniacal, one-name talk show hosts. Welcome to daytime TV. From sunrise to sundown, flipping through the channels is a truly stultifying experience. Too bad boob-tube executives passed up a rare opportunity to give the afternoon airwaves a much-needed intellectual jolt. Daily Variety reports that a daytime talk pilot deal involving "20/20" and ABC News correspondent John Stossel was scratched last week. For the past five years, Stossel has attacked junk science, corporate welfare, the litigation craze and America's culture of victimology. He defends greed and legalized prostitution, pokes fun at the gullibility of his own colleagues, and cheerfully ridicules his own shortcomings along the way. Witty, dogged and thorough, Stossel's prime-time investigative reports and commentaries illuminate two bedrock principles: the virtues of personal and economic liberty. Stossel didn't start out as a free-market ideologue. As a consumer affairs correspondent for the ABC newsmagazine "20/20," Stossel zealously attacked corporate targets, fomented environmental alarmism, and advocated a large role for federal regulation. "But after watching the regulators work," he told The Oregonian a few years ago, "I have come to believe that markets are magical and the best protectors of the consumer. It is my job to explain the beauties of the free market." And he does it convincingly. In his widely watched special, "Is America Number One?" Stossel traveled the world comparing the quality of life in countries with free and not-so-free markets. Stossel concluded that centrally planned economies tend to be the most wretched ones in which to live and work. "Intuition would suggest that countries with the most government planning -- places where you're taken care of -- would be the best places to live," Stossel mused. "But the opposite's true. Countries with the most planning are the most poor." What makes Stossel's work so effective is that he doesn't merely tell. He shows -- in exhaustive, exasperating detail. "In Calcutta, to start a business, you first have to go to this big building to get government permission," Stossel noted as he trekked through the Indian bureaucracy to illustrate the death grip of regulation. "You fill out form after form after form, and then, you wait, and wait for days or years while the bureaucrats debate the merits of your application." The camera pans across a dusty government office with paperwork stacked to the ceiling. "It's all well intended, rules to make sure the food's clean, that the building's safe," Stossel allows. "But the result is that so many good ideas die, die as forms are bundled and stacked on shelves already cluttered with bundles from other people who are waiting." Stossel shares the plight of one clothing maker in India who built a new factory for 400 employees, but waited five years for government approval to get electricity. He was forced to close the factory because of the bureaucratic inertia. "Calcutta is poor because of your stupid policies," Stossel pointed out in a confrontation with an Indian official. "No. That's not right. We have risen on the ladder. We have not gone down," the technocrat sputters. "Socialism just works better?" Stossel asked sarcastically. "A hundred times," the deluded Indian says. Stossel's philosophy is unapologetically libertarian. His reports underscore not only the harm of government intervention in economic affairs, but in personal affairs as well. In another remarkable special for ABC last year, Stossel critically examined a plethora of Nanny State regulations -- from helmet laws to Drug War edicts -- designed to protect people against themselves. "We want freedom for what we do, but we want safety, and we're happy with the laws that affect other people. But I think we've given up quite a lot of liberty without thinking about it," Stossel observed in a TV interview. "America is supposed to be about liberty. Patrick Henry didn't say, 'Give me safety or give me death.' And yet, we keep giving it up and not complaining." Stossel would have brought humor, style and intellectual enlightenment to the wasteland of daytime TV. Rosie and Oprah and Katie and Bryant and the cast of "General Hospital" can all rest easier now. It's back to our regularly scheduled, fact-free, brain-dead programming.