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Jewish World Review Feb. 13, 2004 / 21 Shevat, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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A rare libertarian among Big Media liberals — up close and personal with John Stossel | Economics is really not that complicated.

As Henry Hazlitt showed in "Economics in One Lesson," it's mostly a matter of avoiding common fallacies and following a few simple principles: always look at the long run, take the widest view and observe the unintended and indirect consequences of economic policies.

Throw in Frederic Bastiat's famous lesson about "what is seen" and "what is not seen" when assessing the true costs and benefits of government economic policy, and you're almost as economically hip as John Stossel of ABC's Friday night magazine show, "20/20."

Stossel, a former crusading consumer reporter who now subjects government policy and "public interest" advocates to his sharp skepticism, is not only an openly practicing libertarian journalist on the mass telly; he's also the most economically astute.

Given journalism's infamously low EQ, or economics quotient, that could be perceived as a backhanded compliment. It's not. As Stossel proves on his "Give Me a Break" segments on "20/20" and his own periodic hour-long specials such as "Is America No. 1?" and "Greed," he understands economics and knows how and why free markets work to maximize human liberty.

His smart new book, "Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media," chronicles his TV career and years of on-air confrontations with trial lawyers, bureaucrats and arrogant big-shots such as Donald Trump. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

And whether he's debunking the phony fears of junk science, criticizing the war on drugs or dropping in quotes from seminal free-marketeers like Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, Stossel's freedom philosophy shines through. I talked to the co-anchor of "20/20" on Monday by telephone from his offices in New York City:

Q: Why did you write the book?

A: It took me 15 years to figure out that much of what I thought I knew was wrong, so I want to save readers the trouble. I was not political for most of my life. I moved from liberal to libertarian, but I finally got angry.

I've come to the conclusion that we know what works — limited government and free markets. It's lifted us out of the mud and misery. It could lift some of the other 4 billion people who still make a dollar or two a day out of the mud and misery.

Yet, capitalism and market capitalism is sneered at in newsrooms and universities all across the country. Nobody's defending it. Business is not defending it. It took me a long time to realize how wonderful it is, and I want to share that.

Q: How did you become "a traitor to journalism"?

A: I don't think I am traitor to the journalism profession, but my liberal colleagues described me that way when I turned my skepticism from business to consumer groups and regulations and lawyers.

I always had a point of view in my reporting. I would research a product or a company and I would say, "This product sucks. This one is better." Now I say that about a law or a regulatory agency and suddenly my colleagues say I am no longer objective. CNN invited me on a journalism show and when I got there, I found the title was "Objectivity and Journalism: Does John Stossel Practice Either?"

Q: Did you attend that show, or did you run?

A: I figured I'm a believer in the open debate, so I hung in there and took the shots and tried to argue as best as I could. Boy, did I think of a lot of good answers after I left.

Q: Why do you think so few journalists can understand the kinds of things you learned on the job — that free markets and free minds are good, that licensing of professions is anti-consumer, that competition is almost always a good thing?

A: They're steeped like tea bags in The New York Times and in the culture around newsrooms in Manhattan and Los Angeles. The liberal culture is that critics of government activism are conservatives and therefore evil.

Q: You know that it's a complete and utter miracle that someone who thinks like you do is in such a position of media power. That must be a scary thought in some ways.

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A: Nothing ever seems to happen because of any of my reporting, so it's not like a scary power. The people with power are the lawyers and government, because they are allowed to use force.

Q: Define your political point of view, compared to your bosses and peers in journalism.

A: I'm a libertarian. I don't know what my colleagues are, but they tend to lean liberal. I would think the newsroom vote in 2000 was split roughly evenly between (Al) Gore and (Ralph) Nader.

Q: The response you get from viewers is what?

A: The response I usually get is mostly positive. Most of the hostile response — they just ignore me, avoid me. I see it in my book tour. I'm not invited on the CNN and NPR programs that my liberal friends, who are less visible than I, do.

Q: There seems to be so much more regulation and laws and bigger and bigger government out there and both major parties are a part of it. Does it discourage you?

A: It saddens me that the regulations keep growing — another 600,000 pages to the Federal Register since President Clinton got all applause for saying "The era of big government is over." I find it very threatening. Jefferson said, "It's the natural progress of things for government to gain and liberty to yield" and that's what I see.

Q: Are there segments on "20/20" or specials you've done you wish every American had tuned in to see — that had a larger, more sweeping lesson, or that summed up the whole problem as you see it?

A: Yes, and these video tapes are available from and "Is America No.1?", to show what makes a nation prosper; "John Stossel Goes to Washington", to show what the government is really like; "Greed", to show the counter-intuitive parts of free enterprise and ambition.

Q: I can see critics saying your book is "too simplistic, too naive." Do you get that criticism?

A: Yes, I get the patronizing, "Oh, you're so naive. It's much more complicated than that."

Q: The people plugging your book on the back jacket are a pretty good lineup — Milton Friedman, P.J. O'Rourke, Steve Forbes, etc. Who's your favorite? Who made you want to read parts of their stuff to your wife?

A: Milton Friedman.

Q: What's next for you? You won't be leaving ABC any time soon.

A: No. Barbara (Walters) announced that she's leaving. I hope to be able to do the show by myself.

Q: You will be the anchor?

A: That's what I read in Variety.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald