Apr 1 1998

‘Greed’ Is Bad Reporting

Nobody, but nobody, gets to use network news as a soapbox to proselytize for his personal ideological views like ABC‘s John Stossel does. His messianic fervor for the “free market” has often been displayed on his regular 20/20 gig as well as on several ABC Newsspecials–but never with as heavy a hand as on his February 3 broadcast, Greed With John Stossel.

The hour-long special was Stossel’s attempt to make the case that, in the words of one of his hand-picked experts, “greed is good.” To this dubious end, the ABC correspondent mustered faulty logic, one-sided sourcing, twisted history and deceptive statistics.

Faulty logic: Greed is peppered with Stosselisms like this one: “Greed is bad, right? Yet we like the scientist who’s greedy for new knowledge, or the artist who’s greedy to start something new.” One doubts that would score points in a junior high debate tournament.

At another point, we see a psychology experiment where a group of people sit around a bowl of money. The people can take all the money they want–but the bowl will be periodically refilled only if it isn’t emptied. At the beginning of the experiment, all the cash is quickly and greedily grabbed, ending the game. But then the players learn to cooperate, each taking a limited amount at any one time so the bowl gets refilled, and everyone has more. Stossel’s conclusion from this: “They’re just as greedy, but now they’re cooperating and making more. That’s just how business works.” People voluntarily cooperating for the common good is “how business works”? Actually, it sounds more like socialism.

One-sided sourcing: There’s almost no one on camera in Greed who disagrees with Stossel. Again and again he turns to David Kelley, who is IDed as a “philosopher,” never as the head of the Institute for Objectivist Studies, a think tank devoted to promoting the philosophy of novelist Ayn Rand. Conservative columnist Walter Williams is brought on as an economist to tell us that we’re most satisfied with things produced by “greed” rather than by “caring”–oddly citing “the post office” and “garbage collection” as institutions “motivated by caring.” Clips from a 10-year-old movie (Wall Street) and a 30-year-old cartoon (Dudley Dooright) were chosen to show the mass media’s purported bias against businesspeople.

The one expert featured to make a (not very effective) case against greed was a billionaire: media mogul Ted Turner. The only other on-screen figure who wasn’t backing up Stossel’s thesis was AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney, who failed to come back with a snappy response when Stossel argued that Sweeney’s $200,000-a-year salary disqualified him from complaining about corporate greed. (Stossel’s income, unmentioned on the show, is estimated at more than $1 million.)

Twisted history: Stossel’s program offered a glowing portrait of robber barons–a term which the objectivist Kelley vehemently objected to. “They weren’t barons,” he insisted. “All of them started penniless.” (You can predict that such a sweeping statement is wrong. One study of 1870s tycoons, cited in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, found that 90 percent of them came from the middle or upper class.)

A People’s History is useful for debunking much of Stossel’s pro-greed history. “[John D.] Rockefeller got rich selling oil,” Stossel claimed. “But no one was forced to buy his oil. Rockefeller had to persuade people by offering it to them for less.” According to Zinn, Rockefeller cornered the oil market by controlling supplies, making secret agreements with shippers and–in at least one case–blowing up a competitor’s refinery. There’s no mention of the Ludlow massacre, the bloody suppression of a strike at a Rockefeller-owned mine, in Stossel’s account of how the Rockefeller fortune was made.

Deceptive statistics: Stossel’s ultimate point, of course, is that the robber barons of the present era are really benefiting us all. Here’s the crux of his argument: “The AFL-CIO complains that in the past 15 years, bosses’ pay has risen 500 percent…. Still, that doesn’t mean the workers were hurt. Factory wages were up, too–up 70 percent.”

First of all, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, wages for manufacturing workers have risen 55 percent since January 1983–but only if you don’t adjust for inflation. If you make that adjustment, which you certainly must if you’re trying to find out whether workers have been hurt or not, you find that factory workers’ real wages have fallen by more than 6 percent since 1983, even as corporate owners’ and top managers’ incomes have soared. This statistic alone refutes Stossel’s claim that the greed of the super-rich makes everyone richer.