Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 15, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DAN RATHER, MEET JOHN STOSSEL....Jack O'Toole, in the course of musing about Dan Rather's sins, reminds us of the remarkably similar though less remarked on sins of pro-business 20/20 journalist John Stossel. Here's the story behind a Stossel-reported 20/20 segment aired in February 2000:

  • Stossel sets out to produce a story demonstrating that organic produce is a sham.

  • Hires scientists to test pesticide residue on organic and non-organic produce.

  • Scientists don't actually test produce, but they do test chickens. Result: conventional chickens have pesticide residue, organic chickens don't. A victory for organic chickens!

  • On resulting 20/20 episode, chicken results are ignored. Instead, Stossel claims ABC tested produce, and that ordinary produce has no more pesticide residue than organic produce.

  • Environmental group writes letter telling Stossel that his own researchers say his report was wrong. However, they are dismissed as partisan advocates and ignored. The 20/20 segment airs a second time.

  • Months later, the New York Times writes about the controversy. Suddenly, with the mainstream media involved, the criticism is taken seriously.

  • ABC investigates and discovers environmental group is correct. After six months of stonewalling, Stossel goes on air and finally apologizes. "I am deeply sorry I misled you," he says.

  • However, he insists that the gist of the report is still correct, and attributes the error to honest confusion over test results, not political bias.

End result: the producer of the segment was suspended for a month and no action was taken against Stossel aside from a public reprimand.

Because he's a southern gentleman, Jack is kind enough to say that he doesn't think Stossel should be fired over this. Oddly, though, he thinks Dan Rather should be. But why? If recklessly reporting untruths because they fit an alleged underlying political bias is a firing offense for a prime time journalist on a TV news magazine, then it's a firing offense. If it's cause for a reprimand, then it's cause for a reprimand. I don't quite see why standards should be different just because it's a bunch of conservatives howling this time around instead of liberals.

Kevin Drum 1:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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