Mar
01
2003

The Stossel Treatment

Selective editing and other unethical tactics

Sometimes John Stossel's technique is no different from the sensationalism of any other tabloid TV entertainer. Witness his report on "dwarf tossing" (20/20, 3/8/02), in which he professed indignation at "busybodies" who want to stop the practice. "Dave Flood is a dwarf who is angry because his rights are being violated," declared Stossel. "He wants to be tossed."

But Stossel's approach can transcend the merely embarrassing, becoming careless or unethical. His reports are billed as news, but they sometimes rely on questionable methods such as deceptive editing that distorts arguments made by interviewees, the exclusion of facts that might conflict with his personal opinion, and the provocation of guests so as to broadcast their reactions out of context.

"We were hoodwinked"

One controversy that caught mainstream media's attention concerned Stossel's interview of a group of grade-school students for his ABC News special "What's Wrong With Tampering With Nature?" (6/29/01). The children's parents had signed releases for them to appear on the show, but after witnessing Stossel's methods, several withdrew their consent and protested to ABC.

The special caricatured environmentalists as "preachers of doom and gloom" whose fanaticism would have us all "running around naked, hungry for food, maybe killing a rabbit with a rock, then dying young." A key theme was Stossel's claim that U.S. schools have become an "environmental boot camp" to indoctrinate children with green propaganda, when in fact the environment is doing just fine.

To illustrate his point, Stossel arranged an interview with a group of California kids, asking what parents described as leading questions to try to show that the children had been taught environmentalist lies. Several parents said they hadn't known about this slant when they granted permission for the interviews. They complained that ABC had "misrepresented" the segment by telling them simply that it was an Earth Day special, and by concealing Stossel's involvement (L.A. Times, 6/26/01).

One father, Brad Neal, told the Washington Post (6/26/01) that Stossel's questioning was "entirely misleading," and that "he'd repeat the questions until he got the answer he wanted.... We knew we were hoodwinked." Parents said Stossel even tried to lead the children in chant suggesting that "all scientists agree there is a greenhouse effect" (L.A. Times, 6/26/01).

As a result of the negative publicity, ABC pulled the interviews before the show aired, though the network stood by Stossel's work. Stossel's own response was instructive. He found new kids to interview, apparently with the same techniques: On the special, they responded in well-coordinated unison to Stossel's questions. He also went on the attack against the parents, saying that they had been "brainwashed" by environmental activists, whom he characterized as "the totalitarian left" (O'Reilly Factor, 6/27/01).

Tricky editing

Little kids aren't the only ones who should beware of Stossel's tactics. During his one-hour special "Is America No. 1?" (9/19/99), Stossel used tricky editing to misrepresent the views of James K. Galbraith, a leading economist at the University of Texas.

Rife with factual inaccuracies (Extra!, 11-12/99), the show attempted to demonstrate that laissez-faire economics are "what makes a country work well for its people." Stossel claimed that Europe has high unemployment rates because of policies that provide benefits such as paid parental leave and make it "very hard" to fire workers.

The facts are so persuasive, said Stossel, that "many economists who once argued that we could learn from Europe, like James Galbraith, have now changed their minds." Stossel then played a clip from his interview with Galbraith: "There might be a moment for the European to learn from us, rather than for us to be studying them." The implication was clear: Galbraith believes Europe should follow the U.S.'s lead and require fewer protections and benefits for workers.

In fact, Galbraith is an outspoken opponent of the adoption of U.S.-style laissez-faire policies in Europe. "My point is quite different from the one Stossel makes in the lead-in," Galbraith told Extra!'s Seth Ackerman (11-12/99). Galbraith explained that he had actually told Stossel that "Europe could, in short, benefit from adopting some of the continent-wide transfer mechanisms, such as Social Security, that we have long enjoyed in the United States." In other words, Galbraith did feel Europe could learn from the U.S. by expanding social benefit programs--the opposite position, essentially, from the one implied by Stossel's editing.

After FAIR issued an Action Alert (9/28/99) critiquing this and other distortions in "Is America No. 1?," Stossel issued an evasive rebuttal (11/6/99)--signed, oddly, by Stossel and "some of his staff"--which insisted that Galbraith's "views on this particular matter were not misrepresented," but hedged that "we did not intend anyone to think he endorsed every statement made in the hour."

Despite Stossel's claim that he had done no wrong, the sentence introducing Galbraith's soundbite had been changed when ABC rebroadcast "Is America No. 1?" a year later (9/1/00). "Even economists who like Europe's policies, like James Galbraith," said Stossel the second time around, "now acknowledge America's success."

Some facts are better than others

Sometimes Stossel responds to uncomfortable facts not by spinning them, but by omitting them. In one instance, producers resigned from a Stossel special after their findings were dismissed because they cast doubt on Stossel's "preconceived notion" of the truth. The show was "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" (4/21/94), a 90-minute special about the evils of government regulation.

Positing that America's ability to "compete in a world economy" could be compromised if we worry too much about "dangerous-sounding" things like "pesticides, pollutants, bioengineering, electromagnetic fields" and so forth, Stossel reassures us: Today, "we live longer than ever." Therefore, advocates like Ralph Nader--who is portrayed as a fear-monger who "screamed about everything"--have it all wrong. The real danger is regulation, since "regulations may shorten lives by making people poorer."

It's tough to argue with such relentlessly simplistic logic, as Stossel's own staff found out. As reported by Karl Grossman (Extra! Update, 6/94), a source close to ABC said that two of the three producers hired to work on the special resigned because their findings were unwelcome.

Producer Jan Legnitto found that government product-safety regulation was cost-effective, while Vicky Sufian's research on comparative risk indicated that some regulations actually served to protect people. Neither finding supported Stossel's anti-regulatory stance, so their research was dismissed. Both producers asked to be released from their contracts and left the program.

Similarly, in the 1995 special "Boys and Girls Are Different" (2/1/95), Stossel's team seems to have discarded evidence that complicated the show's biology-is-destiny slant.

Claiming that men and women think differently "because our brains are different," Stossel argued that "trying to fix these differences will be pointless, expensive, even hurtful." On this basis, Stossel attacked remedies for inequality such as sex discrimination laws and affirmative action, saying they force unnatural outcomes.

As documented for Extra! by Miranda Spencer (5-6/95), Stossel featured a variety of scientists supporting biological explanations for gender traits and roles. Instead of contrasting these views with the numerous scientists who disagree with that approach, Stossel set up feminists without scientific backgrounds to refute them.

Spencer found that Stossel's staff had in fact talked to some of the scientific authorities who were left out of the program, including Brown University biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, a prominent figure in gender studies.

Fausto-Sterling--whose research has found more overlap than difference in male and female abilities--was contacted by fact-checkers for the program before the show aired. Her input, however, didn't seem to pass the litmus test. One ABC producer told Fausto-Sterling that interviews were already "set up" and that it was too late to restructure the show to introduce more balance.

Joan Bertin--then co-director of Columbia University's Program on Gender, Science and Law, now a professor at Columbia and executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship--was also called by an ABC staffer who had no interest in material that didn't confirm Stossel's preconceived notions. "She left me with the clear impression she had explicit marching orders to find material to support gender differences," Bertin told Extra! (5-6/95).

Part of the story

Particularly troubling is Stossel's 1997 report about a rape allegation at Brown University. The controversial sexual assault charge was prominently covered by Brown's newspaper--it also generated stories in the Associated Press, Boston Globe and USA Today, among other outlets--and sparked rallies on campus, along with intense debate about sexual assault and Brown's disciplinary system.

In 1996, Brown student Sara Klein charged that she had been raped by a fellow student, Adam Lack, while she was too drunk to consent or remember the event. Lack maintained that the sex had been consensual. Klein filed a complaint with Brown's disciplinary council and Lack was suspended for sexual misconduct. On appeal, the judgment was reduced to "flagrant disrespect" and the suspension reduced to probation (Providence Journal-Bulletin, 1/30/97). Lack later sued both Brown and Klein, a case which was settled in December 1997 (Brown Daily Herald, 10/25/00).

The facts behind the Lack/Klein case remain unclear, but Stossel's 20/20 report about it--"When Yes Means No" (3/28/97)--exploited the incident to make some disturbing claims about sex and rape. The way 20/20 told it, the questions about consent and assault raised by the case were problematic primarily because of Brown's "political correctness."

"There is something of an authoritarian atmosphere surrounding women's issues on this campus," Stossel announced, adding this memorable bit of wisdom: "If nobody had sex except when they were totally sober, I bet there would be a lot less sex on this campus."

The report consisted of an extensive interview with Lack (Klein reportedly declined to be interviewed) and footage of a verbal fight between Stossel and students at a campus rally against sexual assault.

As portrayed in the segment, the rally was angry and combative. "I got a feeling for the intolerance when the activists asked if anyone else wanted to speak," Stossel said, introducing his own entrance into the story, in which he took the stage to ask the crowd to define rape. According to Stossel's report, students were unwilling to consider his questions even though he was "just trying to educate" himself, and so drowned out his innocent inquiries with hostile chanting.

An article in a local paper, the Providence Journal-Bulletin (1/30/97), told a different story. According to the paper, the "orderly rally" degenerated into a "free-for-all" only after Stossel stepped out of his journalistic role to take the microphone.

Stossel reportedly "responded with an obscenity" when a student questioned his journalistic integrity, mocked a student who quoted Brown's discipline code--"I'm glad for $30,000 you learned to read"--and tried to provoke one woman by asking her, "If I were dating you, and put my arm around you and put my hand on your breast...."

Stossel's cursing and innuendos were not included in his 20/20 report.

When all else fails, fabricate

In 2000, revelations about Stossel's shoddy journalism caused a brief media furor that ended with an on-air apology by Stossel for having cited non-existent test results in a report.

The report was "The Food You Eat," originally aired by 20/20 on February 4, 2000. In it, Stossel warned that organic produce may be more dangerous than conventional produce, saying that tests commissioned by ABC found increased levels of E. coli bacteria in organic sprouts and lettuce. He also stated that the tests found no pesticide residue "on either organic or regular produce," thereby obviating a key reason for buying organic food.

But, as the Organic Trade Association pointed out in a letter sent to ABC before the report aired (11/8/99), Stossel's E. coli tests were non-specific, meaning that they did not distinguish between dangerous and benign strains of the bacteria. The distinction is crucial to a story about food safety, but the 20/20 report omitted it, leaving the impression that the presence of any E. coli whatsoever could prove fatal.

OTA also pointed out that although one of their representatives was interviewed on the show and asked to comment on the study, Stossel's producer replied evasively to their "numerous" requests that he "clarify what types of E. coli were tested for." The group says that they learned the details of the test only after they were interviewed.

What's more, the pesticide tests Stossel cited were never done. In July, a story brought to light by the Environmental Working Group was picked up by the New York Times (7/31/00): The scientists that ABC commissioned--Michael Doyle and Lester Crawford--said that they never tested any of the produce for pesticides, only for bacteria.

In addition, Crawford told the Times that he did perform similar tests on chicken, and found pesticide residue on the conventional poultry but not on the organic poultry. That data is nowhere in Stossel's report, which suggests that, true to form, he took a selective approach to reporting scientific evidence.

Prior to these revelations, several groups--including FAIR, EWG and OTA--had voiced concerns about other aspects of "The Food You Eat," including its failure to disclose a primary source's ties to the chemical industry. At the time, ABC dismissed the questions, and rebroadcast the report uncorrected on July 7.

After the news about the non-existent test was picked up by mainstream media, ABC announced that it would reprimand Stossel and suspend his producer, and Stossel issued a lengthy on-air apology (8/11/00). FAIR wrote to ABC Newsurging them to take the occasion to investigate Stossel's overall record on accuracy, and to consider whether it lived up to the network's journalistic standards. The network, however, seemed to have decided to treat the debacle as an isolated incident. FAIR never received a response.