Victor Neufeld, 20/20's executive producer, whose wife is a PR agent who has represented the nuclear, chemical and plastics industries, has continued to steer the show away from environmental stories.
In an Extra! expose (1-2/94), 20/20 staffers and ex-staffers told of Neufeld squelching stories critical of the nuclear industry and putting a spin on environmental stories that minimized or denied environmental concerns.
ABC reacted to the Extra! article by "circling the wagons" around Neufeld, a 20/20 source said. As for Neufeld's posture on environmental stories, "It's the same thing--and worse."
Indeed, Neufeld, along with John Stossel, the correspondent who has done most of the 20/20 pieces denying environmental concerns, expanded beyond 20/20 on April 20 with an hour-long ABC network special, called "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" Neufeld was the program's executive producer, Stossel its host.
Two of the three producers hired to work on the program resigned because their findings did not confirm to the Neufeld/Stossel view of what the special was to claim, according to a source close to ABC. Jan Legnitto was assigned to develop the portion of the show on product safety and found government regulation to be cost-effective. Vicky Sufian investigated comparative risk, and the data she collected indicated that regulations served to protect people. When the facts they came up with clashed with the "preconceived notion" for the program, their research was dismissed. They asked to be released from their contracts and left the program.
Dealing mostly with the environment, the show gave Neufeld and Stossel the opportunity to amplify on the dismissals of environmental problems Stossel has specialized in as 20/20's "consumer reporter." "Scientists say many of our fears about chemicals are ridiculous, that just because scientists now can find microscopic quantities of poison doesn't mean that those tiny doses hurt people," declared Stossel on "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?"
As to government regulation: "Economists say regulation makes a country a little poorer," Stossel claimed. "By slowing the economy, the regulations may shorten lives by making people poorer.... Being poor shortens lives much more than other risks."
The source for much of the Neufeld/Stossel program, according to an ABC source, was a 1991 book published by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank based in New York, entitled Health, Lifestyle and Environment: Countering the Panic. An employee of the Manhattan Institute, who asked to be anonymous, said the group's senior fellows "served as consultants" and "contributed" to the ABC program.
In a special edition of Nightline, hosted by Stossel that followed his report, Linda Greer of the Natural Resources Defense Council challenged Stossel's figures. He turned to the Manhattan Institute's Peter Huber as an expert witness: "You wrote a book about junk science. Is this junk science?' Unsurprisingly, Huber supported his own group's research: "Your numbers are essentially right," he said.
Greer told FAIR that the discussion section was "heavily edited. The most important parts were taken out."
Stossel concluded the show by stating: "Today we're exposed to far more dangerous-sounding chemicals and technologies than ever before: pesticides, pollutants, bioengineering, electromagnetic fields, and the result? We live longer than ever."
At press time, the only piece 20/20 has done involving nuclear energy since Neufeld took over in 1987 was a 1991 Stossel segment extolling the irradiation of food. Since Extra!'s report, 20/20 and Stossel have again pushed food irradiation. In a segment on unsafe chicken meat entitled "Eat at Your Own Risk" (3/25/94), Stossel summed up:
"Today scientists say most bacterial contamination could be eliminated altogether if poultry were just treated with cobalt irradiation. That kills virtually all disease-causing organisms. The government's approved irradiation. But at a recent chicken trade show, the irradiation exhibit seemed a little lonely. Companies have been reluctant to use this new technology. After all, anti-irradiation groups promise to picket stores that sell irradiated chicken. So the current system goes on and on."
And, at ABC's 20/20, the current system also goes on and on.