Big Media’s Lonely Libertarian: an interview with John Stossel

Big Media’s Lonely Libertarian: an interview with John Stossel
June 1, 2001

It doesn't take long to figure out there's something odd about ABC's John Stossel, the consumer and environmental reporter who does those "Give Me a Break" segments on 20/20 on Friday nights.

For one thing, unlike most of his colleagues on and off the air, Stossel is no liberal Democrat. Nor is he just another Brit Hume conservative. He is much rarer: Stossel is the only network reporter who is an unabashed, out-of-the-closet, on-the-air, ideology-pushing libertarian.

Not surprisingly, Stossel, who recently came to Pittsburgh to speak to the Young Americas Foundation Conference at the Ramada Plaza Suites in Oakland, has gotten grief from the religious left for saying such politically incorrect things as "greed is good for the economy" and calling environmentalists who fret about global warming and pollution "scaremongers."

The left-wing media watchdog group, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), monitors Stossel's every word and regularly accuses him of bias and inaccuracies. If FAIR knew the Palmer R. Chitester Fund of McKean, Pennsylvania has made it possible for Stossel's videos to be seen by 173,000 students in 600 institutions like Shaler High School and Duquesne University, they'd be even more annoyed.

I talked to Stossel by telephone from Florida, where he was vacationing with his family.


Steigerwald: How is it that you’ve gotten into such a powerful position in the national media? Do you have incriminating video of network executives, or what?

Stossel: Ah . . . noooo. I guess they just find my work worth putting on.


Steigerwald: At the Web site of FAIR, one of your biggest enemies, they complain "Nobody but nobody gets to use network news as a soapbox to proselytize for his personal ideological views” like you do. How has this happened?

Stossel: Well, I started as a consumer reporter, where I'd do research on different products and come to a conclusion. So I've always been giving my point of view—my research-based point of view. Possibly I did that differently from other reporters because I never learned journalism in journalism school, because I never went to journalism school. But that's how I've always done reporting. It became controversial with the groups from the totalitarian left, like FAIR, when I started criticizing their sacred causes.


Steigerwald: For the record, how do you describe your politics?

Stossel: Jeffersonian. Government that governs least, governs best.


Steigerwald: How did you come upon these ideas?

Stossel: I watched the regulators work, as a consumer reporter. I watched them fail and I watched them enrich lawyers and make consumers' lives worse with their interference with the free market. I came to conclude that protecting peoples' freedom, property, and life is the role of government, and people do best when government does little more than that.


Steigerwald: You came to these ideas through your own experiences, not through books?

Stossel: Yes. I did discover Reason magazine 10 years ago, which was an epiphany to find that other people had been saying things along these same lines and that there was an intellectual foundation behind it. It was an enormous relief to discover I wasn't alone.


Steigerwald: In your specials and on 20/20, what is the message you are trying to deliver? Are your enemies right to call it a coherent ideological viewpoint?

Stossel: Many of the stories I do don't fit any particular ideology. When I do put in my ideological political point of view, I just go back to this idea that government that governs least, governs best, and that individual freedom is a good thing.


Steigerwald: Why are you doing what you do? Obviously you have a good job, make a nice living. You don’t have to cause the trouble you cause.

Stossel: I just believe passionately that this idea that is so seldom broadcast in the mainstream media is the idea that has lifted more people out of the mud of misery and poverty than any other. And yet it is sneered at in universities and neglected by the press.


Steigerwald: You’ve been in network TV for 15 or 20 years. Have you ever met another libertarian, or somebody who thinks like you on all subjects?

Stossel: No. I would think that most of my colleagues, politically, would agree with FAIR on most issues. They might not write about them as often as FAIR would like, but I think politically they are quite comfortable with the Naderite, left-end of the spectrum.


Steigerwald: You got into some trouble with the organic farming industry last year. You made a mistake and apologized for it on the air. What is your 40-second sound-bite on what happened and how the rest of the world reacted to your mistake?

Stossel: The gist of the story is absolutely true—which is that organic food is largely silly and it's silly for people to pay much more for food that is no better. In the piece we pointed out that some people think organic food may be worse, because it is grown without artificial fertilizers, which means there may be more e-coli bacteria. The main point, though, is that the food supply is all safe, and it's silly to spend more for organic.

In the course of that, a producer had a dyslexic moment or something and got confused on what one of the scientists said. We had paid some scientists to do some testing for us. They found slightly more e-coli in organic food. The producer also was under the impression they had tested for pesticide residues and had found none, but in fact they had not tested for that.

So we were wrong on the air, and I went back on the air and apologized for that.


Steigerwald: Some people—the FAIR people—wanted you to be shot on 20/20 or at least fired over this. This was a fringe group, but was the idea of you quitting taken seriously by anyone else or by your bosses or colleagues?

Stossel: FAIR has always been demanding that I be silenced. The totalitarian left doesn't want other people heard. Now they had a real mistake to focus on. It was a very uncomfortable time for me. I don't think anyone was planning to fire me.


Steigerwald: Your videos are enthusiastically used in high school and college classrooms. I’m sure that’s gratifying to you.

Stossel: It thrills me. It's very frustrating to work so hard on these shows and then have them air a couple times and disappear—and then to get letters from professors saying, "Oh, I so wish I could have taped this to use in my class." So now ABC has licensed a charity to help put it into classrooms. I love that.


Steigerwald: Which of the four in classrooms is your favorite?

Stossel: My favorite is "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death," because it was my first special. It was difficult to get it on the air. Some of the people with whom I worked did not think it should have been aired. But ABC News executives, to their credit, said “we don't agree with (the program’s point of view), but it's an interesting intellectual argument and it deserves to be made.” I think they were then surprised to see how well it rated.


Steigerwald: You do a lot of speaking engagements across the country. When you speak, what’s your main message?

Stossel: The same ideas that are in "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death" and "Is America #1?": That freedom works and we ought to wise up to that and we ought to stop expanding government and covering our lives with a spider web of little rules that limit our freedom and make life worse.


Bill Steigerwald is the Pittsburgh-Tribune-Review’s associate editor. Call him at 412/320-7983, or contact him by email at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com. This article © 2001 by The Tribune-Review Publishing Co. Reprint permission granted to Health Care News.