Jul 30 2004

Will ABC Balance Stossel’s Election Year Axe-Grinding?

July 30, 2004

ABC commentator and anchor John Stossel holds a rare position in television news: His commentaries air unopposed on a network news show. But after Stossel’s July 23 “Give Me A Break” segment on 20/20 about Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, ABC viewers might be wondering what the network will do to balance Stossel’s partisanship.

Stossel’s piece focused on Edwards’ history as an attorney. This is bad news to Stossel, who in 1997 was given a full hour for his special “The Trouble with Lawyers,” which depicted the profession as overzealous and greedy. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Stossel began by noting that Edwards could be in for a pay cut: “Should he become the next vice president, he’ll make more than $200,000 a year. That’s a big step down from the millions he once made as a trial lawyer.”

But more than anything in particular that Edwards did as a lawyer, the real point seemed to be to remind viewers of all the bad things lawyers do. “Today, the trial lawyers may be the most powerful profession in America,” Stossel explained. “We always hear about how they help the little guy. But we rarely hear about the unintended consequences of what they do. And they can be nasty. With John Edwards potentially a heartbeat away from the presidency, we ought to take a look at what his most passionate supporters really do.”

With that, Stossel moved on to profiling Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, a prominent attorney, with “If Edwards is effective, this man must be super-effective,” all that’s offered by way of transition. Stossel immediately found a way to link Scruggs and Edwards: “Of course, the money for Scruggs’ planes and the millions Edwards made comes from someone, and that someone is you, the consumer.” Stossel has a litany of complaints against lawyers , familiar to anyone acquainted with the conservative tort reform movement (See Extra! , 3-4/04): Fewer corporations are making vaccines because of lawyers. Lawyers make products more costly and quash innovation; “lifesaving products are especially penalized.” Lawyers are ruining hospital care since they “have bred so much fear that patients now suffer more pain and may be less safe because doctors are so fearful of being sued.”

Stossel never went too far without reminding viewers that Edwards directly benefited from their burdens: “By being a consumer, you helped pay for Dickie Scruggs’ plane and John Edwards’ three homes.” Stossel encouraged viewers to tie their impression of Edwards to the actions of other lawyers, which would be like noting that George W. Bush was once in the oil business, then documenting the environmental impact of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

When Stossel does get to describing actual cases that Edwards tried in court, he reaches for conclusions that exceed the available facts. Stossel claimed that Edwards “made millions suing doctors and hospitals on behalf of people whose children were born with cerebral palsy.” Edwards claimed, according to Stossel, that oxygen deprivation was a factor, a situation that could have been avoided if the doctor had performed a Caesarean section. Stossel lamented that “one thing doctors learned from Edwards’ art form was to do more C-sections. C-sections are more common today for many reasons, but fear of a cerebral palsy lawsuit has had a big impact. Since 1970, C-sections have gone up from 6 percent of all births to 26 percent.”

How much of the increase in C-sections is due to medical judgment, rather than fear of lawsuits? Stossel doesn’t address the question. Dr. Luis Sanchez-Ramos, an obstetrics professor at the University of Florida, noted in the British Medical Journal (2/12/94) that “in Brazil and Mexico, where malpractice is not a problem, the caesarean section rate is still high.” Sanchez-Ramos suggested that profit may be another motive driving C-sections, pointing out that rates are higher in for-profit hospitals and with patients who have good health insurance.

But Stossel focused on lawsuits as the core problem: “So are women today suffering more pain, even risking their lives on unnecessary surgery, partly because lawyers like John Edwards scared doctors?” It’s a complex question, depending among other issues on how much of the surgery is actually “unnecessary.” But Stossel’s answer just assumes that trial lawyers are the villains: “Well, maybe all Edwards’ cases were good ones, but the fearful atmosphere that lawsuits create has far-reaching consequences.” That we should see malpractice suits as making doctors “fearful” rather than “careful” is something that the ABC journalist asserts rather than explains.

Of course, political candidates are fair game for criticism. But given Stossel’s politics, it’s unlikely that he will be doing a similar attack on George W. Bush or Dick Cheney this campaign season– certainly not one that fits in with their opponents’ talking points so well. (When Edwards was picked by Kerry, the Republican National Committee’s website headlined its response, “Who Is John Edwards? A Disingenuous, Unaccomplished Liberal And Friend To Personal Injury Trial Lawyers.”)

When ABC ‘s parent company Disney refused to allow its Miramax subsidiary to distribute Michael Moore’s film “Fahrenheit 9/11,” company CEO Michael Eisner offered this rationale (5/5/04): “We just didn’t want to be in the middle of a politically oriented film during an election year.” So why does ABC air one-sided political commentary during an election year?

ACTION: Please contact ABC and ask that 20/20 provide a counter-weight to Stossel’s partisan commentaries– especially in an election year.

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