Jewish World Review Feb. 13, 2004 / 21 Shevat, 5764
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.
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 laissezfairebooks.org and intheclassroom.org: "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.
Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.
02/10/04: Young innovators changing the rules
02/03/04: Now, the election fun begins … 10 minutes with Charlie Cook
01/30/04: Dem Dems
01/16/04: Caucuses bore you? You're not alone
01/14/04: Paradise lost? Ten minutes with … Victor Davis Hanson
01/09/04: Howard Dean week?
12/26/03: How is the magazine sector doing?
12/17/03: 10 minutes with Thomas Sowell
12/15/03: Journalism 'watchdog' displays bad reporting
12/09/03: Book lovers are losing a good read
12/05/03: 'South Park' has unlikely audience tuning in
12/03/03: An odd lot of 35 'heroes'
11/24/03: 'We'll learn the truth someday' … 10 minutes with JFK expert Cyril Wecht
11/18/03: Exposer of the idiocy of bureaucracy and the threat to individual freedom posed by government … Ten minutes with author James Bovard
11/14/03: Two stories examine Wal-Mart's domination
11/07/03: The real Rumsfeld … 10 minutes with author Midge Decter
11/05/03: Lights! Camera! Fudge!?
10/31/03: The straight dope on hate, drugs, Jon Stewart
10/24/03: See what federal $$$ does?
10/21/03: Esquire recalls its glory days
10/14/03: A 784-page biography hatchet job that only Clinton-haters will love published by Random House? Ten minutes with Nigel Hamilton
10/10/03: Bush adviser girds for a tough fight ... 10 minutes with Mary Matalin
10/07/03: Forbes gives advice on making rich list
09/30/03: A 20th Century American tour
09/26/03: Reagan's life in letters
09/24/03: Bin Laden and Boy Bill
09/22/03: Dennis Miller makes funny business of politics
09/16/03: Famous 'bad girls' clear the air
09/12/03: Ben Stein gets serious: Davis is a 'thug in a gray flannel suit'
09/09/03: Smart(-Alecky) mag's very different 'swimsuit issue'; Murdoch might not be as bad as we thought
09/02/03: Ex-teacher lambastes our schools
08/25/03: Vanity Fair strives to be more than glamorous
07/22/03: Title IX's original intent … Ten minutes with Eric Pearson
07/11/03: Vanity Fair dishes it out on JFK Jr., N.Y. Times
07/09/03: Why Ben Franklin should be the "Father of Our Country" ... 10 minutes with Walter Isaacson
07/07/03: Honoring nation's first celebrity superstar
06/27/03: Reader's Digest can't help but act its age
06/24/03: Dick Morris, consultant for hire, reveals the inside story
06/20/03: Move over, Hillary. Here comes a better work of fiction
06/10/03: Publications take us away from Middle East
06/03/03: Dear graduates: Work for freedom … 10 minutes with Penn Jillette
05/30/03: National Geographic goes to the top of the world
05/23/03: Editors dabble in history, fiction
05/16/03: The Old Grim Lady gets covered
05/09/03: Political parties fighting over Iraq's wreckage
05/07/03: 10 minutes with a big-city Dem mayor who loathes budget deficits, the federal highway program, taxpayer-funded sports stadiums and the meddling (and aid money) of Washington
05/02/03: Are you sufficiently terrified?
04/29/03: Finally, a president defending American principles in the Middle East ... 10 minutes with Alexander Haig
04/25/03: Newsweeklies starting to lose interest in Iraq war
04/21/03: There's bias, and then there's bias
04/11/03: Planning future of Iraq, world
04/04/03: Newsweeklies come back with graphic look at war
03/28/03: Newsweeklies try to keep up with TV war coverage
03/26/03: Wen Ho Lee whistle-blower says beware of China
03/21/03: America's ready for war ... and peace
03/18/03: Baseball limping, not dead … 10 minutes with author Andrew Zimbalist
03/14/03: Vanity Fair gets us ready for month's big event
03/11/03: A road map for Iraq's liberation devised by James Madison? … 10 minutes with James S. Robbins
03/06/03: Iraq war will come and go before we know it
02/28/03: America takes time out for swimsuits
02/26/03: 'We shall be seen as liberators' .... 10 minutes with noted Brit commentator David Pryce-Jones
02/21/03: Terrorism one of many losing battles
02/14/03: Editors planning for the day after Gulf War II
02/12/03: The 'religiosity' of Ronald Reagan … 10 minutes with author Paul Kengor
02/10/03: Should the shuttle crash be the end of NASA?
02/06/03: Dear Joan ...
01/31/03: Newsweek, Nation ponder pros, cons of Gulf War II
01/24/03: 'Original' ideas follow New Deal philosophy
01/22/03: When handicapping 2004, watch the economy: Ten minutes with … Charlie Cook
01/17/03: New Republic fans hatred for SUVs
01/14/03: 10 minutes with Santorum on ... taxes, steel and Lott
01/10/03: Newsweeklies move on to latest menace
01/07/03: The best of the Q&As
12/30/02: Rosie's demise tops list of 2002 highlights
12/23/02: GOP must stick to its principles: 10 questions for ... Bill Kristol
12/20/02: Lott fiasco uncovers bigger problem
12/18/02: Free markets king in Sweden, at least for a day: Ten minutes with …. Donald Boudreaux
12/13/02: Corruption of Indian casinos no surprise
12/06/02: Giving credit to young philanthropists
12/02/02: Ten minutes with …. Chris Matthews
11/26/02: It's critical to memorialize communism's victims: 10 minutes with … Lee Edwards
11/22/02: JFK's secret health woes are revealed
11/19/02: It's best to contain Saddam: Ten minutes with … Col. David Hackworth
11/15/02: Brushing up on the affairs of a wild world
11/12/02: Make Dems filibuster … 10 minutes with … Robert L. Bartley
11/08/02: National Geographic: Urban overpopulation is good
11/05/02: The bloody consequences of a broken INS: Ten minutes with … Michelle Malkin
11/01/02: Going to pot; thank heaven for media overkill
10/29/02: It's all about federalism: Ten minutes with … Jonah Goldberg
10/25/02: Frank Sinatra, Kurt Cobain, Mad Magazine will never die
10/22/02: Here's why Orwell matters: Ten minutes with … Christopher Hitchens
10/18/02: The sniper knocks Iraq off the covers
10/15/02: Iraq, oil and war: 10 minutes with ... economist/historian Daniel Yergin
10/11/02: England's gun-control experiment has backfired
10/04/02: Buchanan the media baron?
09/27/02: Analyzing Esquire, GQ is not for the squeamish
09/20/02: CEOs: The rise and fall of American heroes
09/13/02: Skeptics remind U.S. to calm down
09/10/02: 'A failure to recognize a failure': 15 minutes with ... Bill Gertz
09/06/02: Rating the 9-11 mags
08/30/02: Bad trains, bad planes, and bad automobiles
08/28/02: Baseball, broken, can be fixed: 15 minutes with George Will
08/16/02: 9-11 overload has already begun
08/13/02: Tell us what you really think, Ann Coulter
08/09/02: A funny take on a new kind of suburb
08/02/02: It's not the humidity, it's the (media) heat wave; the death of American cities
07/12/02: Colombia's drug lords are all business
07/09/02: If capitalism is 'soulless' then show me something better: 10 minutes with … Alan Reynolds
06/25/02: Origins of a scandal: 10 minutes with … Michael Rose
06/21/02: 9/11 report unearths good, bad and ugly
06/18/02: The FBI is rebounding … 10 Minutes with Ronald Kessler
06/14/02: U.S. News opens closet of Secret Service
06/11/02: 10 minutes with … William Lind: Can America survive in this 'fourth-generation' world?
06/07/02: America, warts and all
05/30/02: FBI saga gets more depressing
05/13/02: The magazine industry's annual exercise in self-puffery
04/30/02: 10 Minutes with ... The New York Sun's Seth Lipsky
04/26/02: Will the American Taliban go free?
04/23/02: 10 minutes with ... Dinesh D'Souza
04/19/02: Saddam starting to show his age
04/12/02: Newsweek puts suicide bombing in perspective
04/09/02: How polls distort the news, change the outcome of elections and encourage legislation that undermines the foundations of the republic
04/05/02: Looking into the state of American greatness
03/25/02: The American President and the Peruvian Shoeshine Boys
03/22/02: Troublemaking intellectual puts Churchill in spotlight
03/20/02: 10 minutes with ... Bill Bennett
03/18/02: Suddenly, it's cool again to be a man
03/12/02: 10 minutes with … Ken Adelman
03/08/02: TIME asks the nation a scary question
03/05/02: 10 minutes with ... Rich Lowry
02/26/02: 10 minutes with ... Tony Snow
02/12/02: Has Soldier of Fortune gone soft?
© 2002, Bill Steigerwald