Respond to this Article May 2004

Consumer Retort

From fake wrestling to overlawyered.com.

By Stephanie Mencimer

Back in the 1970s, John Stossel was a young, enterprising reporter who specialized in exposing consumer rips-offs and scammers who preyed on housewives and the unemployed. His reporting earned him a pile of Emmys and a George Polk award. By the mid-1990s, though, after landing a choice slot on ABC's news show "20/20," he was earning the scorn of such liberal luminaries as Ralph Nader for his move away from traditional consumer reporting into the realm of government bashing and cheerleading for corporate America. Give Me a Break purports to answer the question: What happened to Stossel?

Give Me a Break
by John Stossel
Harper Collins, $24.95

The story begins with Stossel's days as a local TV reporter with a stutter who conquered his speech impediment and worked his way up the ranks by pioneering the confrontational on-camera interview a la Geraldo Rivera. After years of taking down small-fry scam artists, the kind who tended to hurt mostly small-fry citizens, Stossel had an epiphany. He decided that he'd been chasing the wrong bad guys. "The more reporting I did, the more it dawned on me that government is often the problem rather than the solution," he writes. "Free markets, not coercive governments, are the consumer's best friend. The people who are really ripping us off are the lawyers, the politicians, and the regulators."

To illustrate his points, Stossel mixes in his biography with a recap of most of the stories he's done on TV over the years. Taken together, his book is a predictable catalog of all the usual conservative hobbyhorses. Global warming as fiction? Check. The Occupational Safety and Heath Administration and those pesky ergonomic regulations? See page 66. And of course, no conservative diatribe on the shelves today would be complete without the rant against taxes.

Nearly every topic Stossel tackles takes a viewpoint that has been assiduously packaged and promoted to reporters by the dozens of industry-funded think tanks that do nothing but create media-friendly narratives to highlight ridiculous regulation or to illustrate the uselessness of, say, the U.S. Department of Labor. Perhaps the TV audience that keeps Stossel on the air will find all of this as refreshing as Stossel claims they do in his fan mail. But political junkies will find much of his material far too familiar.

Take Stossel's "Taxed from morning to night" segment, in which Stossel tallies up all the taxes that construction worker Bill Thurston pays in an average day. He starts with a tax on the electricity that runs Thurston's alarm clock, the sales tax on his toothpaste, the sewer fee for his water, etc. until he gets to the "sin tax" on the beer he drinks at night. Granted, it's a pretty clever illustration. But Beltway insiders will recognize it as a spiel that GOP pollster Frank Luntz says he has been teaching to Republican members of Congress for at least a decade as a way of relating their anti-tax message to voters.

In addressing his many critics, Stossel insists that he's not a corporate shill but a "contrarian" who has been pilloried for challenging liberal anti-business orthodoxy. But his argument starts to sound pretty hollow when he tries to frame the oil giant, Exxon, as a sympathetic victim of various liberal schemes. Stossel posits that because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows former alcoholics to sue for employment discrimination, Exxon should not be penalized for hiring the alcoholic captain who led the Valdez to crash in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989. (Captain Joseph Hazelwood had been drinking the night of the accident and had alcohol in his bloodstrean several hours afterwards but a jury found him not guilty of operating a vessel under the influence of alcohol.) Maybe because of the ADA, Stossel suggests, Exxon shouldn't have to pay the $5.2 billion punitive damage award resulting from a lawsuit over the 11 million gallon oil spill.

His conjecture isn't just flip, it's fantasy. The ADA didn't even become law until a year after the Valdez spill (signed, in fact, by a Republican president with broad bipartisan support because it would help millions of disabled people keep working rather than burdening the taxpayers). Stossel also fails to mention that one reason for the Valdez disaster was Exxon's refusal to transport its oil in double-hulled tankers, which would have prevented about 60 percent of the Valdez's oil from leaking into the sound once it crashed. Exxon had fought requirements for the double hull before the accident, and is still fighting them more than a decade later.

Today, Exxon is still sailing some of the nation's oldest, single-hulled oil tankers through the sound. Why? Because it's cheaper than buying new ships even if it's riskier to the environment. But that kind of "free market" behavior doesn't make it into Stossel's chapter on the benefits of greed and self-policing capitalism. You'd have to learn this part of the story from that bastion of liberal media, the Anchorage Daily News. As silly as it is, Stossel's analysis represents a PR coup for Exxon, which has spent millions to further its crusade to avoid paying the $5 billion jury award, which it's still appealing, another fact Stossel conveniently leaves out.

Another one of Stossel's favorite rants is about "junk science," which he claims lefty interest groups have used to overhype environmental threats to health or human safety. "Liberal activist groups are adept at using the media to help their case by feeding us 'studies,'" he writes. To be sure, some liberal activist groups are guilty of generating hysteria with questionable data. But Stossel doesn't mention where he gets his material. It's not too hard to figure out. In the acknowledgements to Give Me a Break, Stossel generously thanks Walter Olson and Peter Huber of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative, corporately funded group that has been exquisitely successful in its use of "studies" to manipulate the media.

As a fellow at the institute, Huber popularized the term "junk science" in the early 1990s, with his book, Galileo's Revenge. In the book, he claimed that greedy plaintiffs' lawyers were conspiring with corrupt scientists to dupe clueless jurors into hitting big corporations with multi-million dollar punitive damage awards. Stossel repeats this claim, although he adds journalists to the list of culprits. "Since reporters pay so much attention to court decisions, a lawyer who can sell junk science to a few judges and juries can get reporters to sell that junk science to the world," he writes.

In Give Me a Break, Stossel recounts the "20/20" segments he began doing in 1994, entitled "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" He pinpoints these stories as the turning point in his transformation from liberal to libertarian, the time when he realized that Americans were focusing far too much attention on such things as environmental toxins (and by extension, the corporations responsible for them) rather than their own behavior, which is the real danger. Stossel writes, "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."

Stossel's analysis was hardly unique. Huber first popularized this theory in 1985, when he published a Columbia Law Review article that argued that society and the courts were overly obsessed with "public risks," to the point of absurdity. Huber argued that people would be a lot better off if they stopped fretting over the lack of air bags in cars, pollution, and environmental toxins and just started driving safer and taking responsibility for their own destructive behavior, such as smoking, drinking and eating too much. Like Huber, Stossel assumes that personal responsibility and corporate responsibility are somehow mutually exclusive, as if we can't both do the Atkins' Diet and worry about lead poisoning at the same time (a serious consideration here in Washington, given the current contamination of the city's water supply).

According to Kenneth Chesebro's devastating critique of Huber's junk science book in the American University Law Review, Huber provided the intellectual heft for a fledgling "tort reform" movement that was "long on lobbyists and cash but short on ideas." The Manhattan Institute hired him in 1986 as part of a public relations attack on the civil justice system in which the institute packaged Huber's ideas and aggressively marketed them to the media. Perhaps more than any other mainstream journalist, Stossel has helped broadcast these ideas to 20 million people a week and endorsed them with the imprint of objectivity that comes with his place on a traditional network news program.

Give us a break

In Give Me a Break, Stossel recalls his early days in journalism when he would actually investigate a story, and how sometimes a tip wouldn't pan out. Like the time he read a newspaper article that said local vets were billing people for treating nonexistent diseases in their pets. Stossel had his assistant take his cat to 17 different vets to see what happened. No one overcharged him, end of story. Today, though, his book and his news specials seem to be the same old rehash of conservative think-tank reports you might find on FOX News. While he criticizes his fellow journalists for being all too accepting of liberal interest groups claims, he doesn't appear to apply his own critical journalistic skills displayed in his vet investigation to causes with which he is sympathetic.

A tireless lawyer basher, Stossel has become a prominent spokesman for the "tort reform" movement, which with funding from companies like Exxon, has been working for 15 years to limit Americans' ability to hold corporations accountable in court. (The Manhattan Institute's Walter Olson, who runs the Web site overlawyered.com and whom Stossel credits in his book, is at the forefront of this movement.)

Like many such advocates, Stossel suggests that most personal injury and discrimination lawsuits are frivolous, except the ones filed by him (and even that one he notes in retrospect might have been out of line). In 1984, Stossel confronted Dave Schultz, aka "Dr. D," a 6'8," 280-pound professional wrestler on camera, telling him he thought wrestling was fake. Schultz boxed him in the ear, shouting, "You think it's fake?" Stossel sued Shultz and received a $425,000 settlement for his pain and suffering. To his credit, he discloses the suit at the very end of the book--just barely--saying that, "I cringe to admit I sued the World Wrestling Federation. I don't like it when people respond to every injury with a lawsuit."

Nonetheless, Stossel devotes much of his book to detailing the evils of the legal system and the greedy plaintiffs looking to make an easy buck off corporate America. He claims lawsuits have taken jobs out of the economy and added "$500 to the price of a car and $3,000 to every pacemaker." Lawsuits are so out of control, he insists, that "some parents are afraid to coach Little League" out of fear of being sued.

But if Little League coaches are afraid of getting sued, it might be because they've been watching too much "20/20." In fact, Stossel could do a whole episode of "Scaring Ourselves to Death" that compared Americans' outsized fear of lawsuits to reality. The types of suits Stossel complains about have been drying up over the past decade, falling as much as 45 percent even in liberal states like California, according to the National Center for State Courts. As for the Little League coaches, in 1997, Congress passed a law immunizing volunteers, including those Little League coaches, from the lawsuits he says they're so scared of.

Stossel's attacks on lawyers and "frivolous lawsuits" go beyond journalism and verge into the arena of advocacy. This might not be a big problem except that ABC and "20/20" position him as a mainstream reporter. Viewers are led to believe that his reporting adheres to the journalistic standards of objectivity and balance. Yet while Stossel is on-air bashing lawyers and the legal system, he frequently hosts fundraising events for corporate groups actively lobbying for restrictions on Americans' rights to sue. In February, for instance, as the Oklahoma State legislature was considering a bill to put limits on lawsuits, Stossel was the keynote speaker at a lunch sponsored by an Oklahoma City business group backing the legislation. In April 2002, Stossel hosted a fundraiser in south Texas for Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, a corporate front group that was helping doctors seeking caps on malpractice lawsuit damages.

A Washington Post reporter who actively campaigned for a liberal law that he was covering in the paper would be fired immediately. But in his book, Stossel dismisses all the criticism of his activism out of hand with charges of bias, censorship, and the usual conservative persecution complex.

With so many conservative political books in the stores today, a tome like this makes a reader hunger for substance, an argument--even a conservative one--backed up with vigorous reporting that can withstand more than a reviewer's quick scrutiny. There are, after all, serious critiques to be made of the legal system or of government regulations. Plenty of academics and other thinkers have done just that. But in a book that purports to detail an "intellectual" journey, Stossel never interviews any of those people, who also don't appear on any of his broadcasts. Finding other sources outside the agenda-driven think-tank industry would require work, and doing so would take the edge off his stories, make them more nuanced and harder to sound byte. They would, perhaps, lend some genuine insight into the public-policy debate that Stossel so clearly wants to influence.

His book, in the end, is what you might expect from the blow-dried set of broadcast journalism: nothing that can't be summed up in 30 seconds or less--government bad, free market good. It even fails to provide a satisfying answer to its original question: What happened to John Stossel? While he doesn't include it in the book, Stossel did once offer the real explanation. In what was perhaps a moment of candor back in 1996, when he was giving a speech to the conservative legal group, the Federalist Society, someone asked Stossel why he had abandoned consumer reporting to bash government and trial lawyers. According to the Corporate Crime Reporter, Stossel replied, "I got sick of it. I also now make so much money I just lost interest in saving a buck on a can of peas."

Stephanie Mencimer is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly. Her article, "Malpractice Makes Perfect," from the October 2003 issue of the Monthly has been nominated for a National Magazine Award in the "Public Interest" category.


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