Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One What Happened to Stossel? Journalism without a moral position is impossible.
-- Marguerite Duras
As a consumer reporter, I exposed con men and thieves, confronting them with hidden camera footage that unmasked their lies, put some out of business, and helped send the worst of them to jail. The "Dallas Morning News called me the "bravest and best of television's consumer reporters." Marvin Kitman of "Newsday said I was "the man who makes 'em squirm," whose "investigations of the unjust and wicked ... are models." Jonathan Mandell of the "New York Daily News quoted a WCBS official who "proudly" said, "No one's offended more people than John Stossel."
Ah, "proudly." Those were the days. My colleagues liked it when I offended people. They called my reporting "hard-hitting," "a public service." I won 18 Emmys, and lots of other journalism awards. One year I got so many Emmys, another winner thanked me in his acceptance speech "for not having an entry in this category."
Then I did a terrible thing. Instead of just applying my skepticism to business, I applied it to government and "public interest" groups. This apparently violated a religious tenet of journalism. Suddenly I was no longer "objective."
Ralph Nader said I "used to be on the cutting edge," but had become "lazy and dishonest." According to Brill's Content, "Nader was a fan during Stossel's consumer advocate days," but "now talks about him as if he'd been afflicted with a mysterious disease."
These days, I rarely get awards from my peers. Some of my ABC colleagues look away when they see me in the halls. Web sites call myreporting "hurtful, biased, absurd." "What happened to Stossel?" they ask. CNN invited me to be a guest on a journalism show; when I arrived at the studio, I discovered they'd titled it "Objectivity and Journalism -- Does John Stossel Practice Either?" People now e-mail me, calling me "a corporate whore" and a "sellout."
How did I get from there to here? This book is the story of my professional and intellectual journey.
The Making of a Contrarian
I'd been accepted by the University of Chicago's School of Hospital Management, but I was sick of school. I was an indifferent student. I daydreamed through half my classes at Princeton, and applied to grad school only because I was ambitious, and grad school seemed like the right path for a 21-year-old who wanted to get ahead. Hospital management sounded like a useful and interesting career. But before I headed for the University of Chicago, I took a job. I thought the stress of a real job would make me appreciate school, and then I would embrace graduate studies with renewed vigor.
Every time a company sent a recruiter to Princeton, I volunteered for an interview. I got a dozen job offers and took the one that offered me a free flight that would take me the farthest: "Seattle Magazine. They said they'd teach me how to sell advertising or do bookkeeping. But by the time I graduated, "Seattle Magazine had gone out of business. I was lucky,though: Ancil Payne, the boss of the parent company, King Broadcasting, called me to say, "We have a job available at KGW, our Portland, Oregon, TV station. Want to try that?"
In Portland I started as a newsroom gofer and worked my way up. I researched stories for others. Then, after studying how the anchormen spoke, I started writing stories for them. A few years later the news director told me to go on the air and read what I wrote. I reluctantly tried, but I was horrible at it -- nervous, awkward, scared. When I watched a tape of my performance, I was embarrassed.
But I persisted because I had to succeed. When I was growing up, my mother had repeatedly warned me that if I didn't study hard, get into a good college, and succeed in a profession, I would "freeze in the dark." I believed it.
In retrospect, I see that it probably helped me that I had taken no journalism courses. Television news was still inventing itself then, and I was open to new ideas. I learned through fear. My fear of failure made me desperate to do the job well, to try to figure out what people really needed to know and how I could say it in a way that would work well on TV. I stayed late at night to experiment with different ways of editing film.I watched NBC's David Brinkley and Jack Perkins and shamelessly copied them.
But I couldn't talk as well as they could. Since childhood, my stuttering had come and gone. Sometimes I was sure the problem had disappeared forever. Then it would return with such a vengeance, I'd fear saying anything at all. I'd sit silent in class, and miss out on dates because I was afraid to talk to girls ...
In Give Me a Break, ABC's veteran correspondent John Stossel delivers a sharp, witty account of how his years of ferreting out frauds and exposing government corruption have transformed him from a liberal consumer reporter to a lover of laissez-faire.
Millionaire welfare queens?
Tort lawyers run amok?
A $330,000 outhouse, paid for with your tax dollars?
John Stossel says, "Give me a break."
When he hit the airwaves thirty years ago, Stossel helped create a whole new category of news, dedicated to protecting and informing consumers. As a crusading reporter, he chased snake-oil peddlers, rip-off artists, and corporate thieves, winning the applause of his peers.
But along the way, he noticed that there was something far more troublesome going on: While the networks screamed about the dangers of exploding BIC lighters and coffeepots, worse risks were ignored. And while reporters were teaming up with lawyers and legislators to stick it to big business, they seldom reported the ways the free market made life better.
In Give Me a Break, Stossel explains how ambitious bureaucrats, intellectually lazy reporters, and greedy lawyers make your life worse even as they claim to protect your interests. Taking on such sacred cows as the FDA, the War on Drugs, and scaremongering environmental activists -- and backing up his trademark irreverence with careful reasoning and research -- he shows how the problems that government tries and fails to fix can be solved better by the extraordinary power of the free market.
He traces his journey from cub reporter to 20/20 co-anchor, revealing his battles to get his ideas to the public, his struggle to overcome stuttering, and his eventual realization that, for years, much of his reporting missed the point.
Stossel concludes the book with a provocative blueprint for change: a simple plan in the spirit of the Founding Fathers to ensure that America remains a place "where free minds -- and free markets -- make good things happen."
About the Author
John Stossel is co-anchor of ABC's 20/20. He also hosts ABC's John Stossel Specials reports for ABC radio, and ABCNews.com. A graduate of Princeton University, Stossel lives in New York City with his wife and two children. He devotes his time to beach volleyball, youth soccer, and his family.