A Teflon Correspondent
All roles of journalists must be played by journalists (duh!).
—David Westin, president of ABC News, discussing Leonardo DiCaprio's interview of Bill Clinton
John Stossel, television's million-dollar bonus baby, has given new meaning to the old journalistic maxim "Follow the money." People who worked with him in the early 1980s at WCBS-TV in New York remember an easygoing, dedicated reporter who produced reliable though somewhat lightweight stories exposing a vast array of minor consumer frauds and business abuses. Ralph Nader liked him. "But that was when the 'little guy' was the zeitgeist," a WCBS colleague recalls. "Now it's big business." And Stossel followed the zeitgeist, a move that has paid off handsomely for him and his current employer, ABC News.
In the early 1980s news was still a serious factor in television programming. Broadcast executives at diversified TV networks remembered and occasionally quoted William Paley's legendary memo in which he said news was a public service that, if done right, was very difficult to make a profit on. No problem, said Paley (unchallenged at the time by corporate bean counters); the network would make back, through its entertainment division, any losses incurred by the news division.
But one by one, the three original networks were acquired by corporate owners with little if any interest in reliable news or public service. Entertainment was where the money was. By the mid-1980s broadcast executives were taking notice of minute-by-minute ratings and the large, seductive eyes of new "talent." Network news divisions were designated as profit centers and news itself became a product, sold like everything else to Madison Avenue. Even so, news was still serious, most of it broadcast without background music, ubiquitous logos or crisis slogans.
When attention ("attracting eyeballs") became the primary goal of programming in the early 1990s, however, professional attention-grabbers like John McLaughlin, Howard Stern, Bill O'Reilly, Don Imus and Chris Matthews became free-market winners. By cleverly blending blue-collar social values with Wall Street economic values, they got rich. And a handsome young Princeton graduate, confused about his politics but certain of his ambition, followed their lead. He dropped the Naderite stories, became a hero of the libertarian right and got rich.
Steve Wilson, another of Stossel's early WCBS colleagues, now an investigative reporter at WXYZ in Detroit, was surprised enough by Stossel's rapid rise to stardom and his pro-corporate transformation to ask about it. "I ran into him one day, kidded him about his metamorphosis and asked what had happened," Wilson recalls. "'I got a little older,' John answered. 'Liked the idea of making real money. So started looking at things a little differently.'"
Alarmed at his old friend's sudden mutation, Wilson called another former WCBS reporter, Arnold Diaz, who had also moved over to ABC (though as a lowly consumer reporter, at a fraction of Stossel's wage). "What happened to Stossel?" Wilson asked Diaz. Diaz was circumspect, as everyone at ABC is when discussing high-priced talent. "They let him get away with a lot here," Wilson says Diaz answered. "But they don't call him a journalist anymore."
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."
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."