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John Stossel’s Great Invisible Handjob


Picture this: You’re walking down a city street when suddenly you hear a faint rumbling in the distance. You continue on, turning your head round as you walk, trying to detect the source or spot a physical sign of the tremor. No other pedestrians or motorists seem at all aware of any abnormality. Shrugging your shoulders, you’re about to dismiss it, just as a sloshing gastric seism seizes you. The rumbling is coming from within and, as this realization grips you, your bowels begin to convulse ever more violently. Panicked, you shuffle forward, clenching your buttocks tightly. Luckily you spot a toilet at the end of the block, but when you approach it you discover, to your horror, it’s coin operated. You assume a defensive stoop and fumble around in your pocket for quarters you’re fairly sure you don’t have with one hand, clutching your stomach with the other. The intestinal protestations are reaching a fever pitch, a churning uproar. You shout at passersby between moans, begging them for spare change, but your animal hysteria keeps them at bay. Each one of them is identical, you notice: sleazy, malignant and faintly sickly, with a maniacal avian glare, greasy plume and mustache-a cross between Freddie Mercury and a velociraptor. Deaf to your pleas, they simply sneer at you and whine, in piercing, nasal unison, “Give me a break!”

In a final act of desperation, you tug furiously at the door to the john. It’s no use. Your sphincter relents and you deposit in your shorts. “Give me a break!” the clone chorus repeats. The police, also now privatized, respond to calls from the offended citizenry with lightning speed and beat you unconscious with half the blows of a municipal force. You can rest assured that, even as you’ve destroyed your boxers, trousers and possibly even your shoes—to say nothing of your standing in the community or among coworkers—the exclusive commode remains sparklingly inviolate, unharmed by freeloading, feculent wretches like you. If only you’d learned to share before it came to this.

Welcome to John Stossel’s future: a dystopia so uniquely terrifying, neither Orwell’s nor Huxley’s darkest previsions anticipated it.

Stossel began his reporting career as a consumer advocate on the local news in New York City and later was a consumer editor for ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He joined “20/20” in 1981. I don’t know whether it was the sound bitch-slapping he received from pro wrestler “Dr. D” David Schultz in 1984 (for blowing the lid off the secret that pro wrestling is fake) or something as simple as a massive check from the American Enterprise Institute, but something transformed Stossel. In the ‘90s, ostensibly tired of his custodial role, he was quoted as saying, “I have come to believe that markets are magical and the best protectors of the consumer. It is my job to explain the beauties of the free market.”

This was a seminal admission for Stossel, an epiphanic renunciation of objectivity and journalistic responsibility. It’s essentially all you have to understand about him. All of his reports, real or fabricated, are uncontested promotions of the supremacy of unregulated capitalism. You don’t often hear grown men using the word “magical,” unless maybe they’re waxing rhapsodic about Andrew Lloyd Webber, or plying children with candy or kittens for dubious purposes; but such is Stossel’s free-market rapture.

I’d read and heard a great deal about John Stossel, but until a few weeks ago, I’d never seen, or at least paid much attention to, one of his specials until I caught a rerun last week. “Myths, Lies and Nasty Behavior” was a dizzying unreality: wholly subjective and visually glib, each segment a fixed fight in which Stossel was the predetermined victor. In many cases, he had no opponent at all, in what amounted to a free market infomercial. Even Bill O’Reilly makes a pretense of sparring.

“Myths, Lies and Nasty Behavior” originally aired a year ago and was rebroadcast earlier this month. It featured the reporter’s notoriously “unconventional” takes on ten issues, from “Nasty Behavior” like littering to “Myths” about outsourcing and gas prices. Stossel didn’t explicitly file any reports under the rubric “Lies,” but this wasn’t merely false advertising. Stossel’s own lies, distortions and omissions were in ample supply.

The “20/20” anchor’s unrestrained view of privatization was patronizingly and speciously angled as a challenge to the “myth” that “Sharing would make the world a better place.” But his evidence amounted only to ridiculous generalizations: “public toilets [are] often gross,” “Public streets tend to get trashed.” He also offered viewers a peek into an apparently neglected refrigerator at ABC, opening a container of cottage cheese “more than a year old” for the camera. It’s hard to know what to make of this, of course, given his history of stagecraft. It’s even harder to grasp how the fact he works with pigs means the nation should want or have to pay to use restrooms. Anyone who’s traveled by car can attest: the filthiest bathrooms in America are already privately owned, mainly by gas station proprietors. Conversely, public restrooms in Holland are probably clean enough for microprocessor manufacture. Stossel’s refrigerator example is all the more perplexing because a refrigerator at ABC is hardly public property. Sharing, says Stossel, is good only “in families and small groups,” but his own office refrigerator demonstrates that slobs—even a small group—will create disorder irrespective of ownership.

Stossel interviewed only one expert, a university professor and exponent of privatization. It’s extraordinary Stossel convinced even him to abet this sophism. The report proceeds to compare America’s defiled promenades to the success of “virtual ownership” of elephants in Africa. Virtual owners sell hunting licenses for $10,000. Stossel claims in countries with such programs, the number of elephants has tripled, because the owners have a strong economic interest in protecting the animals from poachers. Maybe so. But it is still public ownership—the elephants are owned by villages, not individuals. At $10,000 a pop, I’m just relieved these African upstarts haven’t yet assumed stewardship of American potties.

Stossel’s examples of public vs. private ownership are each jarringly wrong in their own special way, but his view of the fishing industry reveals either a deep inner conflict about the free market panacea he’s peddling, or a total misapprehension of his own ideology. He explains that years ago fisherman had essentially unfettered access to oceans and hence, depleted supplies. Ignoring the glaring failure of basic market forces to correct this plunder-for example, by the formation of a fishing consortium to protect stocks-Stossel instead presents the New Zealand government’s distribution of licenses to fisherman as a model of privatization success.

“Because the fishermen own those rights, it’s private property. The government can’t take it away from them.” Incredibly, Stossel doesn’t seem to understand that that’s exactly what the government did: took away each fisherman’s right to fish as much as he pleased. “The fisherman are free to buy or sell those fishing rights, just like private property.” Fishing stocks, he says, went up. But it isn’t private property in the way Stossel understands it or promotes it in his other examples. In fact, it’s textbook government regulation: the very thing Stossel hates and argues is doomed to fail.

It’s this infuriating incongruity between points that makes Stossel the worst of his breed. Stossel’s greatest asset, then, is actually his frenetic pacing-a meticulous blurring and blending, moving between fundamentally distinct subjects and drawing from them tailored conclusions-that creates a veneer of plausibility. Superficiality is crucial.

Stossel’s pièce de résistance, however, was his treatment of the “myth” that outsourcing is bad for Americans. His approach was shrewdly myopic and audaciously reductionist, a sort of Adam Smith Goes to Sesame Street. His argument in unqualified favor of outsourcing rested almost entirely on the notion of lower prices for the middle class. He dismissed criticism, by people like CNN’s lunatic financial host, Lou Dobbs, that outsourcing is at all unwise or “un-American.” Dobbs’ fears about 96% of clothing purchased in the US being made overseas, he said were irrelevant, extolling the virtues of “more choices for less money.”

But, is it any less simplistic to argue low prices don’t matter when people have no disposable income—or any income at all? Or to point out artificial wage controls, or outright slave labor, overseas doesn’t constitute a truly free marketplace? It’s easy to imagine Stossel trimming the ends of his mustache and declaiming what a windfall the Holocaust was for BMW. He argues Americans are in favor of outsourcing by noting, with odd selectivity, that 87% of E-Loan’s customers choose the company’s express processing by way of India. Listening to Stossel, you begin to wish the “invisible hand” were connected to an invisible body with an invisible foot that could stomp him to death.

I always imagine journalists to be naturally, even obsessively, inquisitive. John Stossel, though, seems to have a near inexhaustible list of things he isn’t interested in. He’s habitually, willfully uncurious. Apparently having never heard of companies like GM, Ford, Motorola, Philips or Dell, Stossel zeroed in on Collabnet, a California company he says was saved by outsourcing. By hiring programmers in India, Bill Portelli, Collabnet’s owner, actually—and, I’d bet, atypically—ended up expanding his American operation.

Stossel cites a “Dartmouth study” he says shows American outsourcers “create jobs in America at a faster rate than companies that don’t outsource and “[end] up hiring twice as many workers at home.” (The study was actually performed by an associate professor at Dartmouth for the Coalition for Fair International Taxation, whose members include Hewlett-Packard and Dow Chemical.) “Since 1992,” he adds, “America has lost 361 million jobs, but during that same time we also gained 380 million jobs. Millions more than we lost.” But the “20/20” anchor, for reasons easily divined, offers no comparison of the types or wages of jobs gained and lost. Paul Craig Roberts, an economist whose work under Reagan hardly makes him a bleeding heart, insists in several CounterPunch pieces that America is hemorrhaging even its innovation lifeblood in “knowledge base jobs.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics, he says, “reports a net loss of 221,000 jobs in six major engineering job classifications.” And, he notes these intellectual property jobs, and other manufacturing losses, are being “offset” by domestic service jobs—retail cashiers, waitresses and bartenders.

Stossel is almost pathologically oblivious to his own grim picture of downsized Americans. Shirley Barnard, a former Levi’s plant worker, and “some of her former Levi’s colleagues” found new jobs they preferred and which paid better. Barnard now works as a secretary. But her husband—another Levi’s worker—and “some other former co-workers” are still unemployed. The Barnards are understandably worried about the future; they had to tap their savings. But Stossel’s an indefatigable, if unspecific, optimist. Despite the fact that the outlook for the Barnards—his hand-picked example—basically sucks, Stossel still uses them to argue that outsourcing “is not a crisis.” In his zeal to convert his heathen opponents, Stossel unwittingly displays the absolute caprice of market machinery–a literally stark 50% success rate.

Even when he has a compelling argument, Stossel is insufferably, gratuitously snide. He called two cotton farmers “welfare queens,” his default epithet. Even if you believe subsidies are wasteful and hamper competition, it’s obscene to smear family farmers as layabouts. Similarly, he once asked Linda Greer of the Natural Resources Defense Council about her criticism of Alar in apples: “Isn’t it possible you killed people by making apples more expensive?”

It’s odd Stossel would be so hard on the American education system. Incredibly, his bio on the ABC News website states “Five of [his] specials have been adapted into Teaching Kits by In The Classroom Media for use by high school teachers to help educate their students about economic freedom. These kits “are now being used by over 25,000 teachers in over 35 percent of the schools in the United States, reaching over 4.2 million students per year.” Maybe he’s just accelerating privatization by taking schools down from the inside.

In fairness, Stossel practices what he preaches, particularly the classic capitalist precepts of invention and adapting to survive. When facts don’t fit the story he’d like to tell, he creates better ones. FAIR documented how Stossel, in a 2001 special, portrayed the American classroom as “an environmental boot camp.” He attempted to conduct students in a “chant” about climate change to illustrate they’d been brainwashed. When parents complained about leading questions he asked in interviewing their children, ABC pulled the footage. Stossel, undeterred, simply found different kids to prompt.

Stossel’s uniformly anti-conservation reporting on environmental issues could most charitably be described as overzealous. In a 2000 report called “The Food You Eat,” Stossel went so far as to fabricate test results to prove organic produce posed a potentially greater danger than conventional produce. Among the findings he cited in the broadcast, Stossel claimed, “tests commissioned by ABC found increased levels of E. coli bacteria in organic sprouts and lettuce” and “that the tests found no pesticide residue [on either variety of produce],” suggesting organics were not more healthful. As FAIR notes, however, Stossel never mentioned the test for E. coli “did not distinguish between dangerous and benign strains of the bacteria.” As for his other major assertion, “scientists that ABC commissioned…said that they never tested any of the produce for pesticides.” Stossel was forced to issue an on-air apology. When his report on the manifold ills of government regulation coincided with Enron’s collapse and the ensuing California energy crisis, he simply ignored the story.

His bizarre editing techniques range from incongruous to obtusely conclusive to pointlessly redundant. A segment on the “myth” of urban sprawl featured his assertion that “more than 95 percent of the country is still undeveloped,” accompanied by a picture of what was clearly farmland—hardly “undeveloped.” Hart notes that his story on sex differences featured a shot of a boy playing with an action figure accompanying the reporter’s assertion that “boys play with action figures.”

I could have written a book about what a dick John Stossel is, but it turns out he already did. In 2004, Stossel published a book, christened compositely with hubris and persecution mania: Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media. In it, Stossel gloats about building a waterfront home and profiting from government subsidy under the National Flood Insurance Program. “Subsidized insurance goes to movie stars in Malibu, to rich people in Kennebunkport (where the Bush family has its vacation compound), to rich people in Hyannis (where the Kennedy family has its), and to all sorts of people like me who ought to be paying our own way.” Ought to, yes, but like a great many things, that also isn’t John Stossel’s problem. After a flood, he writes, “the government bought me a new first floor.” And later when the house was wiped out completely, “financially I made out just fine. You paid for the house—and its contents. I’m not proud that I took your money, but if the government is foolish enough to offer me a special deal, I’d be foolish not to take it.” Feckless bureaucracy isn’t merely his favorite bugbear—it’s his cash cow.

On the other hand, he hasn’t the least compunction revealing, “I interviewed beachfront homeowners in New Jersey, asking why they should be entitled to this [same] brand of welfare.” The homeowners predictably get “angry” and challenge Stossel’s argument they don’t deserve the same insurance he would’ve been “foolish not to take.” He concludes of their recalcitrance, “It’s never welfare if it goes to you.” His extroversion is like a mental illness, as though he’s biologically incapable of identifying his patent hypocrisy.

ABC and Stossel’s admirers hail his positions as “unconventional,” and it’s easy to see why he appeals to them. His reportage is necessarily nonstandard. His lack of convention has a cachet unto itself that is purposely exclusive of propriety. There’s a reason most people don’t argue seriously that we should pay to go to the bathroom. The network, the interest groups he taps as sources and collects speaking fees from, and his libertarian-masochist audience, all have a vested interest in his loopiest preconceptions.

It’s hard to understand how ABC allows Stossel this kind of license. He certainly has a fiercely devoted following and the great favor he shows industry must be a boon for advertising. Whatever the case, ABC execs seem as disinterested by Stossel’s lies as he is—maybe they don’t watch at all. That would be too bad. They’re missing a hell of a show.



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