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Stossel, Statism, and the Media

August 16, 2000

John Stossel

For those of us who see television news and commentary as a vast, statist wasteland, the work of John Stossel has been welcome relief. Each week on the ABC show 20/20, Stossel has his "Give Me a Break" segment in which he comments acerbically on the latest follies of government regulation and taxation.

Stossel's brief commentary, along with the numerous shows he does on the limitations of government, has earned him a large following among conservatives and libertarians. It has also earned him numerous enemies in television, government, and among leftist groups. And like the conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby, who was recently ousted from the Boston Globe, Stossel finds his career in deep trouble because of an innocent error.

Earlier this year, Stossel twice broadcast a comparison of fruits and vegetables grown "organically" (that is, with manure as fertilizer) and that same produce grown by conventional means with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. (I saw one of those segments.) According to Stossel’s research, the conventional produce was actually safer than the organic stuff and was better for the environment. This was a major challenge to environmentalist orthodoxy. However, as we shall see, there was a small problem with what he said, and it is that problem that has become the fig leaf covering the real reason that some prominent people want Stossel’s scalp.

Before dealing with the aftermath of the broadcasts, we need to first deal with whether or not the gist of what Stossel said was true. Researchers looking into the differences between organic and conventional produce actually did find that manure-grown fruits and vegetables were five percent more likely to contain some deadly organisms like e coli than the conventional foods. This should hardly be surprising, as manure provided for organic farms often goes untreated.

Furthermore, as Stossel accurately pointed out, organic produce needs a third more land to grow the same amount of fruits and vegetables as is grown conventionally. Since agricultural runoff is a major source of water pollution, this is no irrelevant statistic.

Stossel's analysis, however, lacked one component, that being whether or not there was pesticide residue on the conventional foods. His researcher said there was none, and like any journalist, who depends upon the accuracy of his staff, Stossel went with the story. However, it turned out that no tests had been conducted. It was an honest mistake, and, in reality, one that should have been irrelevant, since toxicology has long shown that pesticides can easily be washed from produce and that the tiny doses that might be left pose absolutely no threat to human health.

Unfortunately, statists who have long seethed at Stossel’s commentary have been able to leap onto this small glitch and have turned it into a major anti-Stossel campaign. The ABC News hierarchy has already suspended the researcher without pay and Stossel’s critics are demanding that Stossel be fired, despite the fact that he has already made a public correction of his "error."

The stench of hypocrisy here is overwhelming. Leftist journalists for years have trumpeted inaccurate information on environmental issues for years. Time Magazine has even proudly announced that it has renounced all journalistic "objectivity" in its quest to convince its readers that we are in a life and death environmental crisis. In other words, in modern journalism good science does not matter when the environment is at stake. Other news organizations are following the same path. Therefore, since some of the targets of Stossel’s criticism have been environmentalists and the outright falsehoods they promote, it is not difficult to see why Stossel has been in the crosshairs of leftists for many years.

(I wrote my doctoral dissertation on an economic view of newspapers, and in my research found a number of anti-Stossel diatribes, including one in the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review. Stossel, according to this august publication, was a promoter of falsehoods, half-truths, and wrongheaded commentary. In other words, he was a heretic, and heretics must be burned at the stake.)

It is important to examine the real reason that Stossel's career currently is in jeopardy. Despite the "doctrine" that others and I have been taught in journalism school, mainly that the press is the "watchdog" of government, in reality the press and government are true bedfellows. As the late journalist Warren Brookes once commented, the media are not interested in that "status quo," but rather the "statist quo."

Anyone who has worked in journalism can ready attest to the truth of what Brookes said. All of the prized "beats" are in covering government. At the newspaper where I began my career, the business beat was seen as nothing more than glorified public relations for big companies. We easily interacted with officials at all levels of government, who seemed more honest and open than the secretive and less approachable business owners and managers. Multiply this by a thousandfold and a clear picture emerges of the symbiotic relationship between the press and government.

Because sources are the lifeblood of reporters, it becomes easy to see why the press has turned into the biggest cheerleader for the Leviathan State. Government needs the press as a mouthpiece to trumpet all of the "gifts" it gives to its subjects, and the press needs someone to quote, so the marriage has been made complete. It is not surprising, then that government will always provide more news sources than will private enterprises, which must use product quality and good service to draw customers, not leaks to the press.

In Stossel's case, he is considered to be even more of a heretic than other conservative reporters and columnists. He began his stint at ABC News as a "consumer reporter," whose main task is to tell viewers of all the evils that private enterprise has perpetrated upon them. (Stossel’s most famous moment came when during an exposé on professional wrestling, a well-known wrestler slapped the reporter to the floor twice. Stossel later received a cash settlement from the wrestler.) Consumer reporters especially depend upon government agencies for their stories. For example, the "Today Show" has a regular feature with top officials of the Consumer Products Safety Commission to warn viewers of the many "unsafe" products that businesses sell.

What journalists have found is that statism sells the news, as long as it is cleverly packaged into something that promotes the "I’m from the government and I’m here to help you" message. Granted, news shows also give us stuff like "It’s Your Money" in which some government "waste" is highlighted, but mainstream journalists will never question the larger premise that Americans need government to control nearly every area of their lives.

Thus, by questioning his own original premises and by demonstrating time and again how government intervention makes things worse rather than better, Stossel has been the unending target of his journalistic peers. It now looks as though they have an issue with which to hang him. While every other mainstream "news" organization has committed far worse sins against the truth, Stossel has done something that is truly unforgivable. He has exposed the hypocrisy of the media, and for that there can be given no quarter until the man is destroyed.


William Anderson, a Mises Institute adjunct scholars, teaches economics at North Greenville College. Send him MAIL.

Here is an outstanding site devoted entirely to this issue: SaveJohnStossel.com.

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