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."