Risky Journalism

ABC's John Stossel bucks a fearful establishment.

While preparing a 20/20 segment on multiple chemical sensitivity that aired in January, John Stossel sent ABC associate producer Deborah Stone and her sister-in-law, Julie, to Dr. Grace Ziem, an MCS specialist in Baltimore. Prior to the visit, Ziem sent the two healthy women a 16-page questionnaire that included items such as "Do you crave sweets?" and "Do you ever forget what you read?" as well as queries about headaches, chest pains, and other symptoms. They answered the questions honestly and brought the completed forms to Ziem's office, where a physician's assistant gave them brief physical exams. After looking at their answers, Ziem told them they were chemically sensitive. She warned Julie not to get pregnant. She recommended that Deborah move out of New York City and enlist a "smelling buddy" to walk around with her, steering her away from dangerous odors. She charged each woman $925 and prescribed $3,300 in lab tests.

Later Ziem heard through the grapevine that the patients were ABC confederates and that Stossel, who had requested an interview, planned to discuss MCS in the context of "junk science." She also read a transcript of Stossel's 1994 special, "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?," in which he took a hard look at overhyped hazards such as dioxin, asbestos, and pesticide residues. Surmising that Stossel would not portray her in a positive light, Ziem not only backed out of the interview, she filed criminal charges against him, Deborah Stone, Julie Stone, and two other producers, accusing them of surreptitiously recording the conversation at her office. In Maryland, that's a felony. ABC said no such recording was made, and the charges were dropped about a month and a half later for lack of evidence. A disappointed Ziem promised further, unspecified legal action, and her bewilderment at the prospect of a journalist's skeptical treatment was almost touching. According to the Associated Press, "she had always considered the news media 'a friend' but now wonders who she can trust."

Many of Stossel's critics exhibit a similar sense of betrayal. As a consumer reporter at WCBS-TV in New York and, beginning in 1981, at ABC's Good Morning America and 20/20, he acquired a reputation as an enemy of greedy capitalists, a champion of government regulation, and a protector of the public from the insidious hazards lurking in everyday life. Gradually, however, he came to see that businesses are not always evil, regulation can be harmful, and the risks that get the most publicity are usually trivial, if not non-existent.

As this new perspective began to shape Stossel's TV reports, his erstwhile allies in the consumer movement were not pleased. Ralph Nader, who came across as a paternalistic worrywart (imagine that!) in "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?," told TV Guide that Stossel "used to be on the cutting edge -- now he's gotten lazy and dishonest." Sidney Wolfe, executive director of the Public Citizen Health Research Group, told The Washington Post, "I think he's really a menace. This guy is doing a massive amount of damage."

Nader and Wolfe probably were not thinking about Stossel's special on "The Mystery of Happiness" or his stories about relationships and child rearing. A psychology major at Princeton, Stossel has long shown an interest in topics that have little to do with public policy. No doubt Nader and Wolfe would prefer that he stick with those, instead of mucking about with their cherished assumptions. This Stossel does both on 20/20 and in his one-hour, prime-time specials, which air four times a year -- a privilege he won from ABC when Fox tried to lure him away in 1993. His first special, "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?," featured themes that are rarely explored on TV, including the hidden costs of regulation and the exaggeration (or invention) of risks by interest groups and the news media. Subsequent specials examined the flight from responsibility toward victimhood, the durability of sex differences, the chilling effects of litigation, and the perversion of science by lawyers, activists, and politicians. Watching Stossel confront an EPA bureaucrat or a plaintiff's lawyer in his deceptively low-key manner, you get a surreal feeling: The techniques are familiar to anyone who has seen 60 Minutes, but the targets are not.

Contrary to the impression you might get from the Naderites, Stossel's villains are not limited to public officials and pro-government activists. In his recent special on dubious science, for instance, he scored tobacco companies and promoters of vitamin C along with the EPA and the federal government's anti-salt crusaders. Last year he testified in a defamation case involving a 1991 20/20 story that accused Ft. Lauderdale banker Alan Levan of cheating real estate investors. "The primary motive was to inform people about deals where they could lose millions," he told the court. Although another jury had awarded the investors $8 million in damages, concluding that Levan had defrauded them, the jurors in the libel case never heard about that verdict, which was vacated as part of a settlement. In December they ordered ABC and the segment's producer to pay Levan and his bank $10 million. ABC is appealing.

Stossel, who turned 50 in March, has won 19 Emmys, the George Polk Award, and the George Foster Peabody Award. The National Press Club has recognized him five times for excellence in consumer reporting. He is still proud of stories he did a decade ago, but concedes that he sometimes was guilty of the alarmism he now decries -- a point confirmed by the titles of some of his 20/20 segments from the '80s, which included "Danger in the Grass" (about pesticides) and "Brewing Disaster" (about exploding coffee pots). On the other hand, exposing scams has been a persistent theme in Stossel's career as a consumer reporter, and he continues to go after hucksters, swindlers, and charlatans, even when they happen to work for the government or serve a fashionable cause.

REASON Senior Editor Jacob Sullum interviewed Stossel in his office at the ABC News building in Manhattan.

Reason: Let's talk about your political views while you were in college and how they changed over time.

John Stossel: I bought into what was trendy -- trendy is harsh -- what was prevailing wisdom at the time, which was that capitalism is useful but evil. But I wasn't particularly political.

Reason: Did you work on the school paper?

Stossel: I was the business manager. I once tried to write an article about something in the editorial column, but the editorial staff snickered at me. And, in fact, writing has never been my strength.

Reason: In retrospect, would you say you were a left-liberal? Is that how you started out in journalism?

Stossel: I always had an interest in economics, so I was less knee-jerk anti-capitalist than my colleagues. But I certainly had a basic [feeling] that markets are cruel and that we need aggressive consumer regulation by lawyers and government to protect the consumer from being victimized.

Reason: How did your views begin to change? Through experience or reading?

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