Mar 1 2003

Give Us a Break

The world according to John Stossel

ABC News reporter John Stossel enjoys a special position in broadcast network news: Though not usually often identified as a commentator, Stossel is routinely allowed to use his one-hour primetime specials and his regular “Give Me A Break” features on 20/20 to explicitly promote his personal ideological agenda–from singing the virtues of corporate greed to attacking child labor laws–a perspective that is distinctly different from the generally muted centrism that pervades broadcast TV news.

While there is a long and honorable tradition of U.S. journalists with definite points of view who hoped that their reporting would have a political impact–from Thomas Paine to Ida Tarbell to I.F. Stone–what distinguishes Stossel is his willingness to warp reality to fit his ideological preconceptions. His reports, notable for their one-sided sourcing and rejection of inconvenient facts, are frequently marred assertions from Stossel and his favored guests that are misleading or factually incorrect.

Stossel’s errors are often so obvious that one wonders how they could have ended up on the air. In a 20/20 report on medical research (10/11/99), Stossel complained that too much funding was going to AIDS research, claiming that spending on the disease was “25 times more than on Parkinson’s, which kills more people.”

In fact, AIDS killed more than 16,000 people in the United States in 1999–down from 43,000 in 1995. Parkinson’s, which is not itself generally fatal but contributes to other illnesses, has a mortality rate of 2 per 100,000 to less than 1 per 100,000, depending on the demographic group (BC Medical Journal, 4/01)–which works out to a death toll in the United States of less than 4,000 per year.

Stossel once reported (11/12/99) that “98 percent [of Catholic school students] graduate, vs. 49 percent for the public schools.” Actually, according to data from the Department of Education, no state reports a public high school graduation rate as low as Stossel’s figure–in 1995-96, the last data available when Stossel made his claim, the rates ranged from 53.2 in the District of Columbia to 89.9 in Vermont (Postsecondary Education Opportunity, 9/99).

What may seem like honest, even careless mistakes are in fact distortions in service of Stossel’s agenda. In the first case, Stossel was slamming the “AIDS lobby,” who know how to “make money and influence the government,” for getting too much government research funding. In the latter example, Stossel’s point was that private schools are more efficient than what he calls “government” schools. When Stossel gets a fact wrong, it’s nearly always in a way that promotes his ideology.

Wealth & Poverty

At the core of much of Stossel’s reporting is his fervent belief in the efficiency and justice of laissez-faire capitalism, and the evils of most forms of government regulation. To Stossel, a fact like persistent U.S. income inequality is merely dogma circulated by lazy journalists who don’t know the truth. But it is Stossel’s reporting that often gets it backward. In his “Greed” special (2/3/98), Stossel reported that while management compensation had increased in the past 15 years, “that doesn’t mean the workers were hurt. Factory wages were up, too–up 70 percent.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at the time the show aired, wages for manufacturing workers had risen 55 percent since January 1983. But Stossel’s real statistical sleight of hand is that he didn’t adjust for inflation. Taking inflation into account–which is indispensable for determining whether “workers were hurt”–factory workers’ real wages fell by more than 6 percent between 1983 and 1998.

Stossel’s rhetoric on poverty relies on similarly mistaken statistical formulas. Consider this claim (1/27/01): “America now spends about $40,000 a year on every family of four below the poverty line…. You could just cut them a check for that and they’d be out of poverty.” This figure seems to derive from the work of Heritage Foundation welfare analyst Robert Rector, whom Stossel had cited in previous specials. In a 1995 book, Rector calculated that the government spent $324 billion on “welfare.” When that number was divided by the number of families then below the poverty line, the result was roughly $40,000. The problem? Rector’s number for total “welfare” spending includes programs that go to millions of non-poor families–including spending on Medicare and Medicaid, two of the most expensive government programs. Rector takes this total amount, and then divides this by the number of poor people alone. Such a figure tells you nothing about what benefits to poor people alone actually cost.

Not only do we spend too much on the poor, Stossel claims (9/19/99) that poor Americans enjoy the same access to medical care as the wealthy: “Our system does sometimes fail poor people, but the truth is that when someone is denied care, it makes headlines because it’s so unusual.”

So unusual? Analyzing data from the 1987 National Medical Expenditure Survey–at a time when fewer Americans lacked health insurance than today–David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler concluded that 945,000 people were unable to receive emergency care that year (American Journal of Public Health, 3/95). Almost two-thirds of those unable to obtain care cited “high costs or lack of insurance.” Were there really hundreds of thousands of “headlines” that year about the poor being denied access to basic healthcare?

The “victimhood” of labor laws

One has to give Stossel credit for being willing to stake out a strong and often controversial position. Consider his assertion that strengthening labor laws has set a dangerous precedent (10/26/94): “Most of the immigrants who poured into America knew work wouldn’t be easy, that hiring practices might not be fair. There were few laws to protect them. But that gradually changed, and by this decade America had anti-discrimination laws protecting women, minorities and people over 40.” Sounds good, right? Not to Stossel: “That put most of us in protected status and alerted us to our potential victimhood.”

One area of “potential victimhood” in the workplace might be the protections against workplace hazards. In a Stossel piece slamming the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (1/21/00), OSHA’s Charles Jeffress told Stossel: “Since OSHA was created 27 years ago, workplace fatalities have been cut in half.” Stossel’s response: “The regulators can cite specific successes, but look at the record.” But Jeffress was citing OSHA’s overall record, not specific successes. Stossel went on to cite a few anecdotal cases of OSHA’s supposed malfeasance–precisely the anecdotal tactic he accused Jeffress of using.

Stossel’s report on OSHA centered on the agency’s attempt to provide employers with safety guidelines for some at-home workers. He applied the idea to his own work, claiming he could “sue ABC” if, for example, he tripped “on the stuff the kids leave on the stairs.” But under no circumstances could he sue his employer for OSHA violations–OSHA regulations are enforced by the agency, not by individuals’ lawsuits against employers–and the safety rules were to apply to a home worksite, not the entire home. Toys left on the stairs by his kids would not likely fall into that category.

In the same report, Stossel referred to ergonomics as “a new and uncertain science.” A report by the National Academy of Sciences (New York Times, 10/2/98) confirmed that in workplaces where stress on the upper body, neck and back was more common, “the positive relationship between the occurrence of musculoskeletal disorders and the conduct of work is clear.” At the end of his report, Stossel complained: “They’re spending $200 million a month? I think most of it is waste.” If by “they” he means OSHA, his numbers don’t match the agency’s budget for the 2000 fiscal year, which was about $388 million–about $168 million less per month than Stossel claimed.


Getting the greens

Environmentalists are a frequent target of Stossel’s ire. In a report on schools teaching about the environment (6/29/01), Stossel wondered, “Is this education or environmental boot camp?” The ABC correspondent lamented students’ ignorance: “Why don’t they know the facts? The EPA says over the past 30 years, the air has been getting cleaner…. Every major pollutant the government measures is decreasing.” The implication is that EPA data show environmental improvement across the board–but that’s a partial reading of the data. The EPA’s website states that what it calls “total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions”– which include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride–rose by more than 11 percent from 1990 to 1998. Are the emissions that may be fundamentally altering global climate not “major pollutants”?

Criticizing the international Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse emissions, Stossel cited an Energy Department study that “says if we try to reduce global warming by restricting emissions, gas prices will go up 50 percent. Electricity 80 percent.” He seems to be referring to an October 1998 study by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), which supplies data for the Energy Department. The EIA predicted that if the Kyoto Protocol were implemented, electricity prices might rise anywhere from 20 percent to 86 percent by 2010, while gasoline prices might rise from 11 percent to 53 percent. The EIA report also cautioned: “The amount prices must rise is uncertain…. Forecasting technological change and public response to it under various pricing scenarios is an inexact science.” In other words, Stossel reported only the most extreme numbers in the study, and ignored the report’s caveats about uncertainty–fishy techniques that most journalists probably couldn’t get away with.

Stossel also warped reality to make concerns over the pesticide Alar, used by apple growers to protect the appearance of fruit, sound like a hoax (12/22/00). “These people said a chemical in apples was a carcinogen,” Stossel reported, illustrating this statement with footage of actress Meryl Streep. “Sure enough, the apple scare got lots of news coverage,” he continued. “Some parents and schools panicked, throwing apple juice away, banning apples, so the kids ate, what? Maybe Twinkies?” Stossel closed his truncated history by claiming that “government scientists came out with their own report” that claimed that the apples were fine. As Stossel puts it, “Of course, that announcement got less publicity…but eventually the EPA banned [Alar], telling the Associated Press it was responding to widespread public fears.”

Stossel’s viewers were badly misinformed. First, the EPA was concerned about Alar–and, more importantly, its byproduct UDMH–long before the issue received national attention via a 1989 a Natural Resources Defense Council report (which included the publicity campaign with Meryl Streep). EPA research in 1984 found Alar/UMDH was a possible carcinogen, and a 1987 study calculated a cancer potency estimate (Rachel’s Health & Environment Weekly, 1/30/97). Stossel’s timeline was also deceptive: the EPA announced its intention to ban Alar on February 1, 1989 (Associated Press, 2/2/89). That’s three weeks before the 60 Minutes report (2/26/89) that generated the “widespread public fears” Stossel says forced the EPA to act. Further, a 1993 study by the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that Alar posed a threat to children that government regulators were not addressing properly (L.A. Times, 7/1/93).

Stories that put environmentalism in a bad light seem irresistible to Stossel. According to a number of reports from the Washington Times, government biologists planted lynx fur in a national forest in order to manipulate the Endangered Species Act (see Extra!, 6-7/02). As Stossel explained, people are often afraid of the “government’s environmental police,” since “finding a threatened species can set in motion a series of motions that can wreck your life if you’re a rancher or farmer.” (That’s a wildly exaggerated scenario–and Stossel is conflating “threatened” species with “endangered.”) Stossel went on: “That didn’t happen here because it turned out the government’s biologists faked the test. The lynx hair sent to the lab came from a lynx… miles away from where the biologists claim they found the hair.”

In reality, biologists had sent the lab samples of known Canadian lynx and bobcat hair to check whether the testing process could accurately identify them. What’s more, the samples could not have been used to falsify the presence of lynx, because the actual source of the fur was plainly noted in the researchers’ lab books, which are the official record of the study. Contrary to Stossel’s notion that the scientists were “caught” sending in control samples, the Seattle Times reported (12/30/01) that “several told their supervisors about it, and one notified the lab itself.” All of this was available to Stossel months before his report, but the factually inaccurate segment made it on the air.

Reining in regulators

Viewers who watch Stossel know that he’s generally dismissive of government regulators and “bureaucrats,” but sometimes he takes it to an unusual extreme. Consider his description of the Food and Drug Administration (8/12/94): “Every time the FDA announces approval of a new wonder drug that’ll save, say, 17,000 lives a year, it means that thousands died while the bureaucracy was deciding what to do.”

One of Stossel’s prime examples was the Sensor Pad, a medical device that supposedly would help detect breast lumps (8/12/94). According to Stossel’s report, the device was subjected to endless bureaucratic stalling in this country–but not in Canada, where “they approved this in less than 60 days.” In fact, as the Washington Post reported (2/22/95), the device has never been approved in Canada. Mary Jane Bell of Canada’s Medical Services Bureau explained to the Post that the device was banned in Canada until the company supplied data proving its effectiveness.

Another Stossel horror story about government regulations causing serious damage was a report on California wildfires (11/19/93). Stossel reported that the Endangered Species Act prevented homeowners from creating firebreaks: “These people believe they could have protected their property, but the government wouldn’t let them because of a rat.”

But an investigation by the General Accounting Office released in July 1994 doesn’t support Stossel’s argument, concluding that the destruction of the homes did not relate to the Endangered Species Act’s protection of the kangaroo rat, noting that it was legal to cut brush without disturbing the squirrel-like rodent’s underground burrows. The report also found that “county officials and other fire experts believe that weed abatement by any means would have made little difference in whether or not a home was destroyed in the California fire,” noting that the fire, whipped by 80-mile-per-hour winds, jumped over two highways and a canal. The Columbia Journalism Review (5-6/95) reported that Stossel found the GAO report “less than conclusive,” quoting him as saying, “this is the accounting firm for the organization that passed the law [i.e., the U.S. Congress]…. There seemed to be enough holes in that report that eventually led me to say, ‘We didn’t go overboard on that story.'”

Stossel also skewed a story on Title IX, the landmark law passed in 1972 that attempts to create equal opportunities for female students. To Stossel, it’s another regulation pushed by the “equality police,” since “under Title IX, the ratio of female athletes is supposed to match the ratio of female students.” But Title IX does not require proportional participation by male and female students in athletics; since 1979, schools have had the options of showing a history of providing nondiscriminatory opportunities, or demonstrating that the school provides reasonable accommodations relative to the level of interest among students (New York Times, 2/1/03; U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, 1/16/96).

Faulty logic

Even when Stossel’s facts are in order, the arguments he constructs using them often display peculiar logic. Stossel’s “Is Greed Good?” special featured an experiment where a group of people sit around a bowl of money. The people can take all the money they want, but the bowl is refilled only if it isn’t emptied. At the beginning of the experiment, all the cash is quickly and greedily grabbed, ending the game. 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.” Businesses refrain from making as much money as they can so that there will always be enough for everyone? Now that would be a scoop.

In a report on sex differences, Stossel pointed out that “boys play with action figures,” illustrating this claim with footage of a boy playing with a Power Ranger toy. By contrast, a guest told Stossel that girls “tend to want dolls”–an observation accompanied by a shot of a girl…playing with a Power Ranger.

Stossel’s rebuttal to a statement from Sen. John McCain advocating campaign finance reform was to increase the flow of money into the political process: “This year, the candidates and parties will spend less on all American elections than we spend on yogurt or bowling. We spend three times as much on amusement parks. Aren’t elections more important than this?” But campaign finance advocates aren’t just concerned about how much campaigns spend–they worry about how much they receive from those who wish to influence legislation. One could just as plausibly argue that bribes to politicians are not a big deal because they constitute a small percentage of GDP.

Badgering the witnesses

Stossel’s treatment of sources varies greatly depending on whether or not they agree with him. His “question” to an OSHA consultant (1/21/00): “Your critics say you’re a bunch of clueless busybodies trying to micromanage everybody’s life.” In a segment on New York’s welfare-to-work program (3/9/98), Stossel tells workfare participants that “you didn’t get a real job on your own. Everybody says this is a great program.” As if to prove that work was plentiful, he proceeded to show them the help-wanted ads.

Or consider Stossel’s retort to Linda Greer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, referring to the group’s criticism of the chemical Alar (4/21/94): “Isn’t it possible you killed people by making apples more expensive?” Interviewing a lawyer who focuses on violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (11/8/02), Stossel suggested that he was really just running a shakedown racket: “What would you call it if I came up to you in a parking lot and said, ‘Give me money or I’ll smash your car?'”

“You’re a scaremonger,” he scolded genetic engineering critic Jeremy Rifkin (6/29/01). “Why should we listen to you?”

When guests push Stossel’s line, however, he even lets their inaccuracies pass. In a part of his “Is America No. 1?” special (9/19/99) dedicated to the wonders of Hong Kong’s free-market success, one of Stossel’s favored sources claims that Hong Kong is “the only government in the world that makes a surplus, a big surplus.” In fact, 11 countries were achieving the very same feat in 1998–including the U.S., which at the time had been running a federal budget surplus for more than a year–major news that seemed to have escaped Stossel’s notice.

Stossel’s reporting has found allies in the corporate world, as industry is eager to help him out. Holly Glass of the Health Industry Manufacturers Association told the Washington Post that her group “supplied a great deal of background information” to Stossel’s staff for a report on government regulation (Washington Post, 12/15/94).

Though he once remarked that he carefully awaits scientific consensus on a subject (“But the quiet scientists who are respected by their peers, when they agree on something for a year or two, I start to believe”–Good Morning America, 1/7/97) one favorite guest is science writer Michael Fumento. Since Fumento wrote his book The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS in 1990, millions of people around the world have died from heterosexually transmitted HIV.

Free market myths

Above all, Stossel’s reports are often directed toward advancing free markets and attacking most forms of government regulation. While his claims sometime rest on dubious statistical evidence, at other times his comments are simply incredibly broad: for example, “Economists say regulations make a country a little poorer” (4/21/94).

When Stossel did a one-hour special on government regulation and waste (1/27/01), topics then in the headlines like California’s deregulation-induced energy crisis were off-limits. While private energy companies extracted billions from the state’s residents, citizens in California towns with publicly owned utilities were largely unaffected by the rolling blackouts and soaring rates that had crippled the rest of the state. Instead, Stossel stuck to urging more unrestrained market solutions, making statements like: “Look at the sky. Even over an airport, there’s lots of room. Why can’t they fly more planes in this empty space?”

Even when free market capitalism appears to fail, it vindicates Stossel’s position. ABC co-host John Miller made this observation about the Enron debacle (5/24/02): “You’re always saying there should be totally free enterprise, limited regulation, doesn’t a story like that cry out for tough government regulations of these corporations?” Stossel’s offered this Pollyanna-like response: “Everybody’s bashing capitalism over Enron. I think this is an example of how the market works. The fact that it’s big news shows how seldom this happens. In a multi-trillion-dollar economy, you’re going to have some bad companies. But they got caught. They’re not doing it anymore.”

It’s that government intervention that really gets to Stossel: “Governments, because they’re monopolies, just tend not to do things very well. I thought we learned that watching the fall of the Soviet bloc, but apparently not.” Once, ABC anchor John Miller (7/19/02) asked Stossel a straight-forward question: “Has government ever, in the history of time, done something more effectively than a private outfit?” Stossel’s response: “Not to my knowledge.”

As Stossel once put it (1/9/97), “One good thing about science is that in the long run, the truth usually comes out.” Unfortunately, the same is not true of Stossel’s curious brand of journalism.