John Stossel New Book, New Show

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book I won't pretend to be objective about ABC News anchor John Stossel. I worked for him from 1995-2001, as an associate producer on one-hour specials very much like the one airing tonight (10pm Eastern), called Lies, Myths, and Downright Stupidity. Among other illusions, it deflates the environmentalist belief that banning the pesticide DDT was a smart move (in fact, the partial ban on DDT contributes to a death toll of some two million people from mosquito-borne malaria).

Stossel's new book, also out this week, is called Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media and it's similarly full of contrary yet perfectly reasonable observations that we here at the American Council on Science and Health must applaud (and not just because ACSH has given Stossel info for stories over the years).

The book describes case after case, culled from Stossel's specials and 20/20 pieces, in which regulations and lawsuits ostensibly aimed at public safety proved either useless or counter-productive: protective measures for people claiming to suffer "multiple chemical sensitivity" who are in all likelihood just severe hypochondriacs; licensing boards for everything from astrologers to hairdressers who serve as little more than shakedown artists who make it hard for newcomers to break into business; union lobbying that keeps the USDA in the business of hiring chicken inspectors who eyeball plenty of chickens but rarely do anything as useful as check for microbes; FDA regulations that may inadvertently kill people by holding up useful drugs and fat substitutes; federal research funding decisions based on whether celebrities like Mary Tyler Moore charm senators with their testimony; the ludicrous but enduring ban on breast implants; needless asbestos lawsuits that cost more than the damage from September 11; the government's razing of an entire town after small amounts of dioxin were spread there; OSHA fines for failure to warn employees not to eat toner powder from photocopiers; and federal investigations of neighborhood disease "clusters" based on little more than anecdote and coincidence (but try telling that to Erin Brockovich, the lawsuit-addicted activist and movie subject, quoted in the book as calling Stossel "nothing more than a corporate shill").

The book describes how Stossel stumbled (and initially stuttered) his way into a career in journalism, mindful of the fact that his brother Tom, a Harvard Medical School graduate and scientist, was considered the star of the family. Stossel's background in business and appreciation for science made him a natural for the consumer reporting beat in the 1970s, but over time he began to perceive a bigger rip-off than shoddy products: the government that was meant to protect us from shoddy protects.

Regulation tends to do more harm than good, and this dawning realization on Stossel's part crystallized into a pivotal 20/20 piece called "Relaxing the Rules," which aired on December 29, 1989 as a look back at the deregulation efforts of the 1980s. Stossel showed how in case after case, predictions of doomsday from deregulation were wrong and how innovation flourished when regs were relaxed.

I remember seeing the piece when it first aired, at which point I was home on vacation halfway through my four years as an undergrad at Brown University. Between the crazy political correctness going on at Brown tinged with Marxism and the then-popular philosophy of deconstructionism and the collapse of communism going on in Europe in that amazing year, I was ready to hear someone on network news acknowledge the obvious: that capitalism, generally speaking, worked and big government didn't. Five years later, I was in the studio audience for Stossel's first one-hour special, Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death? and a year after that I applied to work for him. As I said in my application later, I was amazed someone had managed to do a TV show about something as abstract but important as irrational risk assessment and even get good ratings in the process. As the book notes, the show's all too unusual message was:

Want to live longer? Don't smoke, and don't drive recklessly. Exercise more, eat less fat, and practice safe sex. Boring. But much more likely to extend your life than cringing over the endless warnings about exploding cigarette lighters, pesticide residues, and toxic waste.

Whether he's debunking Linus Pauling's excessive claims about the benefits of vitamin C or describing superfluous warning labels that caution us not to eat candles, Stossel relentlessly defends common sense against the conventional wisdom, earning him plenty of hate. Since Stossel's book ends with a description of his trip to Brown University in the late 90s and the screaming lunatic protesters who greeted him there, the book felt a bit like coming full circle for me.

The protesters at Brown aren't the only ones who hate Stossel's work, though. The ridiculous and grievously misnamed organization FAIR (Fairness And Accuracy in Reporting) seems to have staffers employed at least in part for the specific task of combing every Stossel broadcast for inaccuracies in statistics and the like, then writing letters of complaint to ABC and elsewhere. But, notes Stossel, FAIR does not write letters of protest about themselves when they do things like hold press conferences to spread the groundless statistic about assaults on women going up on Superbowl Sunday.

The book delves into some of the embarrassing moments when Stossel investigations went awry or caused particular outrage, which is refreshing. Stossel relates in great detail the flap over his 99% accurate piece on the fraud that is organic agriculture he said at one point in the piece that ABC had done tests showing no pesticide residue on either organic or non-organic produce, but an ABC producer had badly misinterpreted the lab results (not one of Stossel's regular team, and someone who has since left the network). Stossel did a correction (a lengthy one) on air, the sort of thing that is a daily routine for outfits like the New York Times, but in Stossel's case the slip-up became headline news, fanned by activists' calls for him to be fired. As he says, this was more than just zealous fact-checking on the part of his critics. The truth is they can't abide a heretic and thought they sensed weakness.

Thank goodness that despite fanatical critics like the FAIRs and Environmental Working Groups of the world, Stossel's still broadcasting and writing and I don't even have to stay up until 1a.m. working on the broadcasts anymore, which is probably what some of his staff were doing last night, with a big show to get ready for tonight (Stossel's book mentions one of his old 20/20 segments, an interview with the late columnist Michael Kelly, that dragged on in editing and re-editing for an exhausting year and a half). The least you can do to show your appreciation for Stossel and his sleep-deprived staff is watch the show. And if you've missed any of his prior shows or wondered how they all fit together philosophically, read the book and understand the method behind the mustache.


January 23, 2004

While I appreciate the oversimplification that leads to the apparently-sound logic that Stossel displays, he is but a journalist. And yes, journalists do research in order to write a report. However, to become an expert takes time, patience, and appreciation for the complexity required to logically think through situations and problems. Stossel bounces over this, almost as if to proclaim himself a Ph.D. on regulatory oversight. It is a shame. His wisdom could be much better used if he did not mistake his uncanny ability to oversimplify extensive systems for "common sense."

Let me put it bluntly in an example. Civilization is, in part, marked by the ability of a society to divide labor roles amongst its individuals. Of primary concern is the agricultural labor market. The ability of agricultural markets to mass-produce a resource (food) needed by all individuals allows a relatively few individuals to make a living in this trade while others can pursue various other trades. These other individuals do not have to spend their time hunting, gathering, or farming for their food. Of these "others," many (like Stossel) have the time to direct their energies to innovation, technology, philosophy, and science. These four, in particular, allow for societal advancement. However, in a capitalist society (especially in a global economic environment), specialization and exchange means that not everybody has the time or resources to be well-informed on everyday issues such as food safety.

This leaves those who have made a living out of food development to determine what is safe and what is not safe, at least in a purely capitalistic society (one without regulatory agencies' hands in industries' business). The problem is that those in the food industry are dependent on the economic success of that food industry. Therefore, they are biased about what should be considered safe. The history of pesticides, from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring to genetically-engineered food crops with "plant protectants" (a.k.a. pesticides) incorporated into their tissues, displays how complex and corrupt industry can be in determining what is good for those of us who are not experts on the matter.

However, the industries that develop our useful products and services should be allowed to at least partially influence the regulatory agencies' oversight in order for societies to harness the optimal potential of industries, without threatening public safety. If regulations are too stringent, industry will work outside of the regulators' view in order to be profitable and in turn employ individuals. There is a balance to be found for successful safety and advancement.

If we were left to Stossel's theory and philosophy, a right-wing Republican's dream, the food industry would determine what we put into our systems and we would be left to their biased oversight. While regulatory agencies can be burdensome and slow down development in the short term, they also help ensure public safety from economically driven industry groups. In addition, in the long run, they help direct industry to adopt sustainable systems for future efficiency in production, distribution, and technology adoption.

I, for one, see Stossel's book as a great opportunity to open up the debate on regulatory oversight in general. However, I would not take it as the final word. After all, while he is an expert journalist and presents a wonderful point of view to consider, he is not an expert in any field that he has "researched." Even to earn a Master's degree, one needs at least two years of research. Never forget to take this fact into consideration when reading his opinions, as logical as they may seem due to linear thought and oversimplification. Ask the experts...and read Marion Nestle's Food Safety: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism, George McGovern's The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time, and Hernando De Soto's The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. These books are written with a holistic and, as much as humanly possible, unbiased perspective on regulatory issues and the need for public service agencies.

Shannon Sked
Philadelphia, PA

Seavey replies:

The last of the three books you cite, The Mystery of Capital, espouses the same libertarian philosophy as Stossel, so he must be doing something right. Both would agree that expertise is radically decentralized in society and why this means the central government is more to be trusted than private individuals, independent scientists, and consumer-pleasing companies (constrained by the threat of lawsuits and arrest if they do demonstrable harm to others) I don't know. But then, I'm not an entomologist, so I can't claim to be an expert on regulation.