A Teflon Correspondent
What Diaz said may be true internally, but for its viewers ABC still packages Stossel as a reporter--a dogged, take-no-prisoners investigator. But they allow him to play by a vastly different set of rules than mainline reporters like Tom Jarrell, Lynn Sherr, John Miller and Brian Ross, who are held to strict standards prescribed in a 100-page manual of professional and ethical practices compiled and distributed by former ABC News president Roone Arledge in 1994. Although Arledge is long gone, replaced by a lawyer with limited news experience, all employees are still required to read the manual and sign a form saying they've done so. By all indications, the standards are only invoked when the network needs an excuse to fire someone. Were they strictly enforced, John Stossel might also be long gone, as he appears to have violated them repeatedly. For example, the standards caution that "especially when there is controversy or accusation, give the person speaking his or her best shot in the context of the report." But when Stossel did a show trashing organic food, he not only badgered Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, but also took some of her remarks out of context and left on the cutting-room floor comments that would have balanced those of the program's main organic food opponent (see "Food Fight," this issue).
When Stossel's "reporting" becomes too incendiary or opinionated, the network simply flashes the subtitle "Commentary" under his face, as it did during his self-declared proudest achievement, a special on risk titled "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" when he turned to the camera, clenched his lantern jaw and asked, "What if simply having so many regulations kills people?" Two producers working on that special were so disturbed by Stossel's writing and editing, and so frustrated by his unwillingness to air anyone who believed that lowering risk meant reducing injury, that they left ABC halfway through production.
Stossel acknowledges his political mutation but says there was no epiphany. Earlier, he had simply "bought into what was trendy," he told Reason magazine years after his transformation. Then he stopped himself. "Trendy is harsh--what was prevailing wisdom at the time, which was that capitalism is useful but evil," he said. He believed then "that markets are cruel and that we need aggressive consumer regulation...to protect the consumer from being victimized." He said he gradually came to realize "that regulation rarely worked on even the most obvious of crooks, that people selling breast enlargers and penis enlargers...would get away with it." From that observation Stossel drew the conclusion that "freedom works" and that regulation of business makes no sense whatsoever. (He declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.)
This transformation turned Stossel overnight into a journalist whom corporate advertisers could love and support. And that made him into an asset ABC bean counters could not afford to lose. When Rupert Murdoch took a shine to Stossel toward the end of the 1990s--no one involved will be more specific--a quiet bidding war ensued between ABC and Fox Broadcasting. Of course Stossel won, as he would have no matter which network prevailed. He signed a seven-figure, three-year contract with ABC and gained the right to produce four one-hour specials a year on topics of his choice, along with a staff of eight assistants to produce them.
In those specials and his regular "Give Me a Break" column on 20/20, Stossel expresses his politics through story topics like Chilean Social Security (totally privatized, and for Stossel the way to go, despite the loss of benefits to millions of Chileans), government regulation (which Stossel regards as thuggish paternalism), tort lawyers (ambulance-chasing bloodsuckers), environmental education (green "scaremongers" terrifying innocent schoolchildren), chemical sensitivity (pushed by whiny hypochondriacs exploited by greedy doctors), greed (a good thing for the economy), risk (the distorted creation of "junk science"), Erin Brockovich (all wet about PG&E), disabled Americans (a powerful lobby that's costing business billions), product liability (crackpot lawsuits), school-bus seatbelts (a waste of money) and an hourlong special, loaded with spurious statistical data, claiming that by any measure of social or economic strength America is "Number One."
From the beginning, Stossel has had his detractors. Lowell Bergman, who left ABC in 1983 to join CBS's 60 Minutes, recalls, "I was Stossel's first producer at ABC. They sent him to me while I was working on a CIA story in Mexico. They parachuted him in to be my correspondent. He was a maniac, a know-nothing who wanted to impose himself on the story, without having a clue what it was about. When we got back to New York, I wouldn't let him into the editing room." Bergman is not alone. At least six ABC producers and editors have told management they refuse to work with Stossel. Others to whom I spoke said they hoped they would never be assigned to do so.
Stossel is unique and too odd to be considered typical. But what he represents, as I learned from scores of on- and off-the-record interviews with people high and low in the television business, is the single-minded focus on money that has come to define how the networks operate, including their news divisions. "The sad thing about Stossel and his ascendancy," says Bergman, now a producer and correspondent for PBS's Frontline, "is that he is the future. He symbolizes the transformation of news into ideological entertainment."