Animal Rights

Risky Journalism

ABC's John Stossel bucks a fearful establishment.

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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?

Stossel: A combination. I saw that regulation rarely worked on even the most obvious of crooks, that the people selling breast enlargers and penis enlargers–all those people would get away with it. They would hold off attorneys general for a couple of years, and then when the law enforcement machine finally came after them they would hire their own slick defense lawyers, who would hold the regulators off for another few years. And then they would just change the name of the product or sign a consent order (which is like saying, "I don't admit doing anything wrong, but I won't do it anymore"). Then they would do it again in a different state or under a different name. The rules didn't hurt the obvious bad guys, but the good companies would have to spend vast sums hiring squads of bureaucrats to obey the OSHA rules or equal opportunity rules, the FDA, EPA, CPSC–and [paying for] the PACs. All the energy that used to be poured into making the product better and getting it to the customer sooner is now put into massaging the leviathan.

Reason: When did you start reading economics and political philosophy?

Stossel: It's embarrassing as a Princeton graduate how little serious economics reading I had done. As this was happening, when I was in New York City–I started in Portland, Oregon–I felt very alone. I would read The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and nobody was saying any of these things. But then I found REASON, and read In Pursuit, by Charles Murray. I realized there were other people who were talking about these things, and there was an intellectual basis for what I was feeling.

Reason: You've said that you look back at some of your early work with regret. Give me some examples.

Stossel: I did a lot of alarmist reporting. I did an Alar story on Good Morning America. I did a story on exploding coffee pots that was probably alarmist. I did a story, because of a very passionate producer who dragged me in despite my reluctance, on a subject that is dear to your heart, passive smoke. I took a quote from [anti-smoking activist] Stanton Glantz, which if I looked at now would make me cringe a bit.

Reason: With your Alar story, was it full-blown hysteria, or did you say there were questions about the evidence?

Stossel: I felt I was reporting on breaking news. The EPA had just made an announcement. I think I was less hysterical than others, but I basically said the EPA said this chemical, daminozide, which is used to keep the apples fresh longer, has been shown to cause cancer in rats–and just saying that will terrify some people. I wish I had the knowledge at the time to say the new testing mechanisms are finding possible carcinogens in most anything these days, and I certainly intend to keep eating apples. But at the time I just reported the breaking news.

Reason: Have you done anything on breast implants?

Stossel: I did a lot of stories on breast implants–at WCBS, when I worked there, just on the cosmetic procedure, interviewing women while they were having it done. Taking the feminist point of view that it's a tragedy that people aren't comfortable with their own bodies, that women would do this even when the men in their lives didn't want them to do this, go through all this risk and pain just to look better. And yet they said they were happier because of it. A lot of them turned out to be doing it because their mothers used to make fun of them for being flat-chested.

But I'm not answering your question, because I guess you're asking about safety issues. I have a special on bad science, which is scheduled to be broadcast soon [it aired on January 9], which talks about breast implants in the light of what is known today. I did not do the alarmist number on breast implants.

Reason: In coming to see that health hazards were often exaggerated, what writers were influential?

Stossel: Aaron Wildavsky [the late political scientist and risk specialist]. Bernard Cohen, a physicist who was writing an obscure physics journal, came to my attention. Unfortunately, that was about it at the time. There may be others.

Reason: How have the ratings been for your specials?

Stossel: Most of them were top-20 programs, which even surprised ABC.

Reason: What about the reviews?

Stossel: I can give you some summaries. There have been some very good, some very nasty. One said I was sucking up to the Republicans, so I could eat giraffe tartar at Newt's house. That was Tom Shales in The Washington Post.

Reason: What reactions to the specials have you found most gratifying?

Stossel: The first [special] was the most difficult and interesting. It's a good example of the market working, in that I had been talking to ABC about a risk program for several years. They had basically stared at me blankly, said they would get to it, but never did. Rupert Murdoch offered me a job, and to keep me ABC gave me four specials a year. I insisted the first one be "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" Some executives argued that I shouldn't make that my first one because no one would watch, [that I should] do something on diet, body image, or raising children, which we know the audience likes. But I insisted on doing "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?"

In the course of doing the hour, two freelance producers quit, saying this was not journalism. It was OK to say that regulatory money was being misspent, that less should be spent on Superfund, perhaps, but more must be spent on self-extinguishing cigarettes or fire-proof furniture. To simply say that regulation itself might be damaging to health and the economy was something no respectable journalist should be allowed to do. There was a meeting at ABC. I laid out what I wanted to do, and they laid out what they thought should be done. ABC's news management, to their credit, said, "Well, I don't agree with you about all of this, but it's a valid intellectual argument, and you deserve to have this on." So those two producers quit, and the program, to a lot of people's surprise, was, I think, the number 15 program for that week. We got a thousand or more letters, 99 percent positive–people saying, "Thank God, somebody's finally saying these things."

Reason: Is that a lot of letters for this kind of show?

Stossel: That's a lot of letters. And I think it got the record number of requests for videotapes ABC has received for a news program, with the exception of one news special on Pearl Harbor.

Reason: What reactions to that special or other specials have you found upsetting, disappointing, or irritating?

Stossel: Sometimes it's disappointing how little impact a program seems to have. I fought so hard to get my risk analysis chart on "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?," which I believe helps the public understand relative risk. It's one thing to say smoking is much more likely to hurt you than flying in an airplane, or pesticide residues, or living in Love Canal. It's another thing to see the huge disparity and to see the damage that poverty causes. I hoped that these bar graphs would be picked up by other media and used as a foundation for debating risk intelligently. And of course, none of that has happened.

The other funny thing is that, in the midst of "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?," there was an alarmist ad for an upcoming news program, on pharmacists mixing things up badly and injuring their customers. All these are stories that deserve to be done, but the issue is how breathlessly we do them.

Reason: Do you think people would be more receptive to you if you seemed to be basically like them–a liberal, but with idiosyncratic views on certain topics?

Stossel: It's an interesting question. Gregg Easterbrook was vilified for the book he wrote [A Moment on the Earth], which was quite middle-of-the-road, I thought. There is a sense that he stepped off the curb, he betrayed his community. I think there is the same sense about me. I was a consumer reporter for 20 years, and to now criticize the consumer movement on regulation–I have betrayed my religion.

Reason: When someone like Sidney Wolfe calls you "a menace" and says you're "doing a massive amount of damage," how do you feel? Annoyed? Amused? Proud?

Stossel: I'm developing thicker skin. When I first read these things, it was awful. I crashed; I wanted everyone to love me. And when I was a consumer reporter, everyone did. I wasn't used to criticism. That [1994 Washington Post story quoting Wolfe] was one of the first major articles. I think it's a great example of how the press works. After I did "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?," I was promoting it on some talk radio program, and someone called and said, "Watch out for Howard Kurtz. He's the enforcer for the liberal interest groups." And months after the broadcast, the same day I received a phone call from a liberal interest group wanting to write a newsletter [article] about my heresy, the call came from Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post. I think Kurtz is a pretty fair writer, in that he makes an effort to talk to a lot of people and get the story right. But in the story with the quotes from Ralph Nader and Sidney Wolfe and others–[even though] this program had 20 million viewers, most of whom thought it was a good thing–he could only find critics to quote.

Reason: What does it signify to you when Ralph Nader says you are "the most dishonest journalist I've ever encountered," that you "used to be on the cutting edge," but now you've "gotten lazy and dishonest"?

Stossel: It's hard to speculate on what other people are thinking. I assume Ralph was upset that I, a consumer reporter, would criticize him. In the course of the interview [for "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?"], I asked him about many of the things he says we should worry about. And he gave endless, detailed answers about hot dogs, coffee, flying, and carpets, which we in TV cut down to their essence. I guess he felt that was unfair. I suspect, in terms of him calling me names, it's the tendency of these groups to demonize people who criticize them.

Reason: What about Nader's argument that it's hard attacking corporations, and now you're taking the easy way out by parroting the free market line?

Stossel: In the culture where I work–in network TV, living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan–it was much easier to go after the corporate bad guys. Then all my colleagues were on my side. To talk about abstractions such as how freedom and voluntary transactions can benefit people in ways that central planning can't even approach–that is much more difficult to do on TV. So I think he is totally wrong about that.

Reason: How do you respond to the criticism that giving speeches to business or free market groups creates a conflict of interest?

Stossel: I think it's good it's being brought up. It's interesting that when I was speaking to consumer groups no one ever complained. It is true that I now speak for absurdly high honoraria. That raises eyebrows. All the money goes directly to charity. I did this before ABC's ban [on honoraria from businesses and trade associations] went into effect, but consumer activists still write articles implying that I am keeping the money, not mentioning that it at all goes to charity. I think what happens is that once you start saying on TV that markets work, that business is not evil, then more businesses want to invite you to speak, because people like to be told they are good guys.

Reason: How have your colleagues at ABC reacted to your political views? Would it be easier if you were, say, a Marxist or an animal rights activist?

Stossel: It hasn't been hostile here. People just give me blank stares. There has been very little criticism to my face.

Reason: ABC News officially urges its employees to avoid taking "a public position on any significant issue of controversy," but that rule does not seem to be enforced. Hugh Downs condemns the war on drugs, for example. What does the policy actually require?

Stossel: It's a mushy line that forbids us to participate in a political campaign, to be outspoken on topics that are hot current political debates.

Reason: Even if you're not covering them as a reporter?

Stossel: It depends on the debate. To speak forcefully about who should win the election, to take a clear, vocal position on abortion during an abortion debate, to take a position while something is being voted on in Congress–that is forbidden. To discuss things in the context of programming we're doing is OK. And when I take a point of view on air, it's not kept secret from the audience. I declare it at the beginning of the program usually: "Here's what my point of view is. I'm laying this out for you to make your own judgment about it." I always put the other side on, and I always ask tough questions of the people who might agree with my point of view.

Reason: What is the rationale behind ABC's policy against taking sides on controversial issues?

Stossel: All we have in news is our reputation. People have a hundred choices for news now, and if we are perceived as closed-minded, people will not watch us or trust us. To me, that's a precious commodity, and to ABC News, too.

Reason: I already don't watch the network news because I perceive them as closed-minded. Is it just that you don't perceive biases when they are the same as yours? Is this notion of unbiased coverage a fiction?

Stossel: I think that's best commented on by people not working for a network. It is true that the hometown paper for most everyone in my business is The New York Times. People have grown up with The New York Times, and people here believe that it's a middle-of-the-road newspaper. Dan Rather says even the editorial page is middle-of-the-road. So talking about a liberal slant to my business is a little like talking to a fish about water. The fish says, "Water? What's water?" It's just what we swim in.

Reason: I notice that you use a lot of rhetorical questions in your TV reports and articles. Is that just a matter of style, or is it a way to avoid stating your opinions directly?

Stossel: I would have preferred to have called "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" just "Scaring Ourselves to Death." I don't know if it began as my style or a way of being slightly less opinionated in presenting these issues, but clearly Dick Wald [senior vice president in charge of ABC's Standards and Practices] prefers it as a question mark.

Reason: Have you been told by producers or other people at the network to tone down your scripts or your articles?

Stossel: When I started at ABC, often the lawyer who vets each piece would say, "You can't say that as a statement, but you can ask it as a question."

Reason: Was the lawyer vetting your material for libel or for compliance with ABC's policy on strong opinions?

Stossel: That's a mushy line. Supposedly for libel–that's what their job starts as–but no one knows what a lawyer will define as libel, so their mandate is broad.

Reason: So a lawyer would say, "You really have to qualify this," or, "Make it into a question"?

Stossel: He would say, "You can't say that." You say, "What if I say it this way, that way, how 'bout if I make it a question?" "OK, you can do that."

Reason: Does that happen much anymore?

Stossel: Now, I just make it a question.

Reason: You've been criticized for crossing the line into advocacy. In your view, have you blazed a new trail in TV journalism, or is it just a matter of using the same techniques from a different perspective?

Stossel: I think two things are happening. One is that I have always avoided professional news-speak. Maybe I have been successful in television because I was never a very good literature student. I didn't go to journalism school. I learned out of fear of failure. I had to figure out how to write for television. And I learned to write conversationally. Then, as a consumer reporter, I would clearly come down on one side of an issue: This product is better than that product. This company is ripping people off–it's a bad thing. As I ventured into more political areas, I continued that style of speaking plainly, saying, "I'm a human being who's investigated this. Here's what I think." And people who disagree with what I think now say I shouldn't be doing it.

Reason: What about the idea that reporters should be objective? Is that a reasonable goal? Would the public be better served if reporters dropped the pretense, if they said, "Here are my biases, and here is my story," rather than pretending to be objective?

Stossel: I wouldn't go as far as you do there, because we're all trying to be objective, but we all have points of view, and we'd probably do better acknowledging that. People who think that every time someone dies there must be a new government agency to prevent the next death ought to acknowledge that they have a bias in that direction. But they are not aware that they have that bias–they just think they are being compassionate.

There are all shades of gray here. My most opinionated work falls between an op-ed piece and a news article. When I get too opinionated, they make me superimpose the word commentary over what I am saying.

Reason: When does that happen?

Stossel: On 20/20, it's assumed that the chats with Hugh [Downs] and Barbara [Walters] are commentary. But on "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?," for example, when I made the argument that regulation, by increasing poverty, was killing people, they made me superimpose the word commentary.

Reason: Can you give some examples of stories people have pitched to you that you refused to do?

Stossel: Sure. Dozens. They are always trying to get me to do stories on airline safety–the most dangerous airport; where you should sit on the plane so you can get out more quickly if it fills with smoke; how you are supposed to count the seats to the exit row so if it's filled with smoke you can get out–and I refuse, because I just think the more we make people frightened about flying, the more people will drive, and that's more dangerous, so we're killing people by scaring them. I think it's irresponsible.

One clear turning point was the Bic lighter story. Our producer rushed in breathlessly [talking] about how four people over four years have been killed by Bic lighters catching fire in people's pockets. By then, I had my death list that we compiled [based on] data from scientific and government agencies as to what kills people. I said, "I'll do Bic lighters if we first do plastic bags, which kill 11 people a year; or garage door openers, which kill six; or buckets, which kill 50 people a year." He then staggered out of my office, calling me insensitive. And they got another correspondent to do the story.

Reason: Can you give some examples of stories you wanted to do that were shot down?

Stossel: I have wanted to do privatization of Social Security, which I still hope to have success at. I have wanted to do decriminalization of prostitution, which I appear to be having success with. [The report aired January 31.]

Reason: These would be stories on 20/20?

Stossel: Yes. I must say that the stories I most want to do are stories that show how freedom works and how privatization works. Frankly, these are not very exciting television. I'm most proud of stories that I did years ago on the benefits of deregulation or on the entitlements crisis, which I did 10 years ago. They were very hard stories to get on the air. The same thing [is true] in the case of the story of how FDA regulation may be killing people as well as saving people. It took 10 years of pushing to get that on the air–not so much because there is overt political opposition but because television is a collaborative business, and to get anything done you need to have at least one producer who is enthusiastic and an executive producer who is at least tolerant. It's a little bit like pushing string. There was no blatant resistance, but there wasn't enthusiasm. I finally got the FDA story on the air after we came across the story about a breast self-examination device that wasn't being approved. "Breasts" helped me get the story on the air.

I want to do more stories on free markets. And I hope to do them, but I am aware I have to intersperse them with stories about raising children, and peeping toms, and diseases of the week.

Reason: Do you find people are resistant because they perceive you as pushing an agenda, or is it just that they think it won't play well on TV?

Stossel: Producers think the audience isn't interested, but they'd go along if they thought it would play well on TV. In the case of Social Security, they don't understand. It would be a difficult story to produce. It's much easier in TV to cover the fire, or the presidential election, or O.J. You know you'll get ratings and interest. It's much harder to cover abstract issues.

Reason: What tricks do you use to get complex or subtle ideas, such as the unseen costs of litigation or regulation, across on TV? Do you find the medium's limitations frustrating?

Stossel: Yes, it is frustrating. The temptation is to do a survey, because you do the research on the issue and you find, in the case of lawsuit abuse, a thousand examples. And you want to tell them all. The best TV stories, and I found this from watching 60 Minutes, may have only three characters in them. My bad tendency is to have 10 characters in the story, and I'm distressed to still have to cut it down. The editing process helps, because we will shoot 10 hours of tape, and the producer will cut it down to an hour of the best material. Then I will cut it down further, and we will cut it down again and again and again. And each time you look at it, you see new ways to make it clearer as you make it shorter.

Reason: Are there scholars or public policy experts whose work you admire but whom you wouldn't want to put on camera because they don't play well on TV?

Stossel: "Play well" is a tough phrase. There are plenty who would play OK, but I would be reluctant to use them because they are not bombastic enough to make abstract issues come alive on TV. In the case of "The Trouble with Lawyers," we searched through many critics of the system who were wise and articulate, but none were as clear as John Langbein, a [Yale] law professor, simply because he spoke explosively. People like Virginia Postrel, Ed Crane, Jim Bovard, Richard Epstein all speak well. I would use them, but they aren't John Langbein. They are too intellectual. Peter Huber is another brilliant individual and speaker. But not dramatic, not explosive.

Reason: Aside from what you've mentioned, are there other topics you'd like to cover?

Stossel: There is always an endless list. I would like to do a story on how licensing hurts entrepreneurs starting off. I would like to do some lawsuits the Institute for Justice is pushing. I might want to do one of your smoking topics.

Reason: Have you done any stories about the war on drugs?

Stossel: I did one [five years ago]. It was about the pro-legalization argument, for 20/20. We focused on [Baltimore Mayor] Kurt Schmoke.

Reason: Have you seen any sign that the big media mergers have had an impact on news coverage?

Stossel: Not yet. The big fear within the journalistic pack is that the evil conglomerates, which were eating us, would censor the news. There was a lot of vigilance and wailing when GE bought NBC. I think there is so much vigilance, and we reporters are so naturally prickly about businesses censoring us, that there is very little danger that Disney will have me doing puff pieces on Mickey Mouse or GE would have NBC squelching pieces on GE engines. I don't think that'll happen. And Disney, to its credit, so far has made it clear that ABC News has been doing quite well on its own.

In terms of squelching stories, I think the underreported story is the self-censorship that takes place because of lawsuits, because of the rich bullies who are willing to use lawyers to get special treatment. A libel suit is so viciously expensive even if you win. That's what scares reporters.

Reason: What kinds of stories do the networks cover well?

Stossel: Breaking stories. The fire that happened today, the crisis elsewhere in the world. I love getting up and watching Good Morning America to see what's happened in my world last night, yesterday, and to know my world is still safe. I think that's what we do the best.

Reason: What do the networks do worst?

Stossel: We do the worst on the slower stories. Most of the important things that happen–Virginia Postrel has written brilliantly about this in her editorials–are, I think, the slow developments: the development of the computer chip, the way Hewlett-Packard was run, the invention of the birth-control pill, the sexual revolution, changing attitudes. Those things don't happen today; they happen this month, this year. We do a bad job covering that.

Reason: How would you describe your politics now?

Stossel: I believe, just as Jefferson did, that less government is good government, and as George Washington did, that government is not reason or persuasion, government is force. I think the issue of the day is how big should government be. Ours has grown over 100 years from 1 or 2 percent of the GDP to about 36 percent of the GDP. I think the debate should be about what percentage is [optimal]. I think it's somewhere around 18 percent, and that's my main political issue. I don't think that makes me a Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative.

Reason: Are people confused by the mix of your interests? On the one hand, you are doing something they perceive as conservative, saying that environmental regulation can be harmful. On the other hand, you're doing this story on the decriminalization of prostitution, which is seen as a liberal issue.

Stossel: I hope it's good I do those things. I receive letters from all sorts of different people on different stories–those who are provoked and those who are grateful. I certainly enrage conservative viewers, who write dismayed that I, who they thought was the one voice of reason on ABC News, would do a story on, for example, kids cursing, and conclude by saying we have bigger problems to worry about.