A Teflon Correspondent
John Stossel was discovered by Victor Neufeld, at one time the executive producer of 20/20 and now overseer of all of ABC's magazine shows. "Invented" might be a better word, because as boss, mentor, champion, defender, friend, Neufeld remade Stossel from an ordinary beat reporter into a high-profile correspondent. Neufeld, although "not a news visionary," according to one of his producers, does know better than most broadcast executives what works on television. "He has a gut sense of what people want," says the producer: "controversy and likability." Stossel thrives on controversy, and has Q-ratings any correspondent would die for.
Q-ratings, which are based on focus interviews, measure likability. They are essentially emotional responses of viewers to face and voice, and have nothing to do with content, credibility or journalistic integrity. Though few anchors or correspondents care to admit it, Q-ratings are a vital currency for TV talent. Stossel's most impressive Q-ratings are found among the all-important commercial demographic group of middle-aged, middle-class, mid-American women, who recognize him immediately and find him "attractive," "honest" and "open."
High Q-ratings are worth millions in contract negotiations. The public rarely learns how much talent is really paid, but wild rumors circulate of multimillion-dollar salaries paid to Barbara Walters, Mike Wallace, Diane Sawyer and John Stossel. "They're all exaggerated," according to talent agent Richard Leibner, who negotiated a contract for Stossel that most ABC producers I spoke to believe is in the range of $2-$4 million a year. One such producer told me, "We never know what correspondents make, but if it was less than ten times what we make, they'd probably admit it." Her income, she said, was "low six figures--very low."
Stossel's "The Food You Eat," an organic food and farming story that aired on February 4, 2000, was heaven-sent to Neufeld: innocent consumers ripped off by a self-righteous $6 billion industry making false claims about the nutrition and safety of organic produce. It was perfect fare for a ratings-obsessed executive who, when he wasn't wandering through the office tearing pages out of People and handing them out as story ideas, was teasing his correspondents about the minute-by-minute ratings reports on their latest segments. Before he moved upstairs, Neufeld ran a betting pool over which news events would and would not prompt viewers to switch channels. His own favorites--one about a pen pal to serial killers, another about an armless aerobics instructor and a third, an hourlong visit with two New York hookers--had viewers glued to their tubes. Neufeld won his bets. "We try to do good journalism at the same time that we get watched," he later told The New Yorker.
Neufeld knew the organics spot would grab and hold a huge market share. "Killer food" stories always do. So he would shoot for "sweeps," those magic weeks during which ratings determine advertising rates for the season to follow. It's probably also safe to assume that Neufeld's wife, Lois, a New York PR practitioner with major clients in the chemical industry, would have been pleased when Victor came home to report the scheduled broadcast of a show defending the agricultural use of pesticides, herbicides, rodenticides, fungicides, soil sterilants and synthetic fertilizers--all forbidden under state and federal organic standards.
Trashing organics was also a golden opportunity for a rising star of the libertarian think-tank community and darling of corporate polluters to advance a speaking career on the anti-regulatory rubber-chicken circuit, which earns Stossel more than $200,000 a year. Stossel himself has talked about the "absurdly high honoraria" paid by people who "like to be told they are good guys." His ABC contract forbids him to keep any of his speaking fees, so the money goes to a charitable entity called the Palmer R. Chitester Fund, which buys videos of Stossel's ABC specials and packages them for classroom viewing with study guides footnoting the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Young America's Foundation and the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed page. Episodes sell for about $40 a copy ($160 for the series), under the brand name "Stossel in the Classroom." (For more on Stossel's classroom connections, see "The Right in the Classroom," by Marianne Manilov, at www.thenation.com.)
However, as Stossel ascended to media stardom and attained hero status on the libertarian right, he became a major headache for the executive suite at ABC headquarters. "They are terrified of dealing with the guy as a journalist," one veteran reporter told me. "He's a pain in the ass who keeps some of the best minds on the fifth floor in perpetual damage control. But I guess he's worth the effort, because although they're horrified by his behavior, they keep him on. He's a cash cow." He's also ABC's best protection against the "liberal media" indictment.
Of course, all media outlets should have contrarians on hand to puncture sanctimonious claims from all sides of the great arguments of our time. But contrarians should be smart, courageous and willing to air the positions of adversaries, even debate with them in public. And if they are going to be packaged and marketed as journalists, contrarians should be held to the same standards as any other journalists. There are many people, some of them seemingly powerful professionals and executives at the networks, who agree with that sentiment. But they are not running the show.
An easy solution would be for ABC to change Stossel's title from "correspondent" to "commentator," his role from reporter to pundit, or better yet move him from News to Entertainment. Then replace him with a real journalist and assign that person to cover the challenging and controversial topics of our times in a fair and professional manner. Otherwise, at the beginning of each special, Stossel should simply offer this public confession: "I'm not a journalist, but I play one on TV."