The Stossel Problem

Posted: Apr 25, 2004 12:00 AM
According to some leading journalists and consumer activists, ABC's news division suffers from a major problem: John Stossel. He used to be such a good consumer reporter, years ago, worthy of his numerous Emmies. But now he thinks that markets protect consumers better than governments do, and he's skeptical of all sorts of beliefs that we all just know are right. No need to question them. None at all.

Stossel's media critics have it all wrong. There's a Stossel Problem, but it's not that he's broken ranks. The real Stossel problem is that he's so alone, that "the ranks" still file forward (or is that backward?), marching left, left, left, right, left.

Give Me a Break!

On his regular 20/20 "Give Me A Break!" segment, and in his recent book of the same title, you get a good idea of the niche he's carved out for himself. In TV's vast wasteland, so much nonsense passes for truth that he can spend most of his time hacking at the biggest tangles of bunk.

Because of this, much of what he does can seem a bit obvious. Take his highly rated recent special "Lies, Myths, and Downright Stupidities." He took up ten common beliefs and showed how each one was grossly in error.

Among the shockers?

He debunks the idea that "money can buy happiness." Sure, we workers and consumers -- and our politicians -- often act as if everything depended on money, and lots of it, but recent studies show differently. Stossel almost shames his viewers when he builds his common-sense argument.

The popular belief that "we're drowning in garbage," that we're running out of space to put all our refuse, turns out also to have no basis in fact. Landfills compete for our trash; communities put up golf courses and parks over landfills that have completed their functions. There's more space being put to use in this way all the time.

He also attacks Republican and Democratic myths. "For more than 75 years," he notes, "no Republican administration has cut the size of government." To believe that Republicans cut government is to deny a whole lot of evidence. Turnabout being fair play, Democrats fare no better at his hand. They are always talking about how the rich should pay more taxes. But in an amusing interview with Al Sharpton, who thought that the top one percent of income earners in America pay less than five percent of taxes, Stossel shows the ignorance behind standard Democratic envy-mongering. In truth, the top one percent of income earners pay 34 percent of all income taxes.

Take a step back and these "lies, myths, and downright stupidities" appear to be fairly obvious. I've tackled many of them myself, in my free Common Sense e-letter, and anyone who's studied the issues for more than a few minutes should know the falsity of the common notions.

If you know something about economics, then you should be able to see through the scarcity panics that lead to scare stories about garbage.

If you've read Plato, Aristotle, or the major texts of just about any major religion, you'd be more than skeptical about money's ability to make you happy, you'd be dismissive.

And if you take the merest peak behind the headlines, you should know that the leading rhetorical gambits of the major parties are just so much, er, "downright stupidity."

But somehow, the common wisdom persists, and gets it wrong.


Beating a New Path

Though journalists pride themselves on their smarts, and getting at the truth, too often their biases prevent them. The same bias that causes them to shun Stossel in the halls, or to level extravagant charges against him for his tiniest slips, causes them to let most of today's idiocies slip by them like a salamander in pondwater.

To talk about their "liberal" bias only goes so far. Conservatives are also prone to error, at least when it comes to partisan matters like evaluating the effectiveness of the GOP.

Perhaps the reason journalists miss the boat is an all-too-human laziness. Once they've latched onto a few ideas -- picked up in high school, or journalism class, or while interviewing a passionate ideologue like (say) Ralph Nader -- other perspectives just don't seem worth pursuing.

Economists call it "path dependence," and it may make more sense explaining journalists' and citizens' investments in their ideas than it does in explaining the investments businesses and consumers make in technology. Journalists can succumb to groupthink as easily as do politicians, activists, clergymen, stock pickers, you-name-it.

And so the fairly obvious truths that John Stossel identifies can't help but strike ABC viewers as delightfully refreshing, and other journalists as dangerous heresies. They are off the beaten path.

So Why Stossel?

In Darwinian terms, Stossel is a mutation, but that rarest of sorts: one fit to survive.

He's a bright, good-looking guy, perfect for television. He wandered into skepticism about government during the normal course of journalism, keeping his eyes open. This was "a terrible thing," he writes in his new book, Give Me a Break. "Instead of just applying my skepticism to business, I applied it to government and 'public interest' groups. This apparently violated a religious tenet of journalism. Suddenly I was no longer 'objective.'"

Though heresy rarely pays, Stossel found a way to keep on at ABC, and thrive, despite disapproval all around him. How? One clue is his cooperativeness. His first special on lies, myths and "downright stupidities" was obviously a solo effort. It was brilliant. But his follow-up on March 22, with another top ten list, featured work by fellow ABC journalists, such as Dr. Tim Johnson, and interviews with experts who don't get a lot of TV play, such as Skeptic Magazine's Michael Shermer. It may not have packed the wallop of the first show, but it showed Stossel's savvy.

So if you want to follow in Stossel's footsteps, keep your eyes open, ask the right questions, and build your own network of experts. And never let common prejudice overwhelm your common sense.

Perhaps if enough of Stossel's younger competitors do just this, he won't seem the ideological odd man out. He'll be one of many odd men in.