Digging for the truth

Posted: May 02, 2006 12:05 AM
If you’re one of the millions of people who have watched John Stossel’s incisive and hard-hitting reports on ABC’s 20/20 over the years, you know that he’s one of the best reporters in the business. But you may not know that he’s also an entertaining speaker -- one who knows how to bring a crowd to its feet with a unique blend of truth and humor.

The speech that Stossel delivered yesterday at The Heritage Foundation’s President’s Club meeting is ample proof. He knows, perhaps better than any other journalist out there, how to set the conventional wisdom on its head. If the “mainstream media” were filled with more reporters like him, the evening news would be far less dramatic. But it also would be a lot more honest.

The reason, as Stossel demonstrates not only on television but in his new book, “Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity,” is that too many journalists fail to dig deeply enough to get to the real story. They breathless hype the latest scare about everything from pesticides and “road rage” to cell phones and irradiated food. Deadly dangers lurk everywhere, and your Intrepid Reporter is all that stands between you and certain disaster. Film at 11!

Trouble is, a lot of it is bunk.

Considering how well fear and panic sell, of course, such behavior is hardly surprising. But as you read Stossel’s book, you’ll notice that a little old-fashioned research often demolishes what “everybody knows” on a wide array of topics.

Take process of irradiating food. When it first came along, it promised a real breakthrough for public health -- strawberries that stay fresh for three weeks and chicken without the harmful levels of salmonella that the Centers for Disease Control says cause many cases of food poisoning and kill 600 Americans every year. But many reporters, fed a steady diet of alarm by environmentalists, hear “radiation” and automatically link it with a laundry list of horrors, from Three-Mile Island to nuclear bombs. According to Stossel:

“They don’t worry much about bacteria because bacteria is natural. But radiation is natural too. We are exposed to natural radiation every minute of our lives: cosmic radiation from space, radiation from the ground, and radiation from radon in the air we breathe. Every year, the average U.S. citizen is exposed to natural radiation equal to about 360 dental X-rays.”

Many journalists who hyped the irradiation scare didn’t know that. And when a consumer-advocacy group named Food & Water told them that the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association didn’t approve of irradiation, they reported it as fact. But it turns out that WHO and AMA do approve of irradiation. Indeed, WHO told Stossel they consider it as important as pasteurization (which was itself denounced as “meddling with nature” when it was first introduced).

How about another subject that’s close to home: education. We reward teachers for excellence, don’t we? In the government monopoly that is public education, don’t bet on it. The fact is, Stossel writes, mediocrity is rewarded. In one of the most amusing (and sad) sections of the book, he includes a flow chart titled “How Do I Fire an Inept Teacher?” The bottom line is, you can’t. The whole, bewildering process amounts to a Byzantine maze that seems designed specifically to protect bad teachers -- because, short of an act of Congress, it’s virtually impossible to fire one.

One by one, Stossel sets ‘em up and knocks ‘em down, often in only one page or two. Think that farm subsidies help guarantee an ample food supply? That premium gasoline is better than regular gasoline? That fast food makes you fat? That buying on the Internet risks identity theft? That the Kyoto Treaty will stop global warming? That vouchers will hurt public schools? That a red car attracts police attention? Think again!

Why is John Stossel probably the gutsiest journalist of all time? Because he’s a man of and for the people. He doesn’t hesitate to boldly proclaim such truths as “Capitalism is responsible for lifting more people out of the mud and mire” than any other force in history.

“Many Americans don't appreciate the miracles of capitalism,” he said. “I can rent a car from someone who doesn’t speak English and, when I get home Visa or MasterCard will have it counted to the penny. And the government can’t even count the votes in Florida.”

There’s a reason we need to be vigilant, according to Stossel: “The founders fought this war for liberty and we are gradually giving it back bit by bit.” Armed with the good sense and incontrovertible facts in his new book, though, you can dig through all the “Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity” that are out there -- and reach the truth.