On Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2004, the memoirs of one of modern journalism’s
most controversial figures, John Stossel, hit bookstores everywhere. His book is titled “Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Scam Artists, and Cheats and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media.”
For those unfamiliar with the man, he is a co-anchor and news
correspondent for the Friday edition of the ABC Network’s primetime
newsmagazine, “20/20,” alongside Barbara Walters. But all the reasons for his fame (or infamy) are covered in his volume, and that’s quite a long story.
Once upon the late 1970s, Stossel ”’pioneered”’ in “consumer reporting.” He valiantly exposed businesses that were ripping their customers off, such as one vendor whose newspaper ads promised to mail people a high-tech “solar-powered clothes dryer” for money. What the payers ended up receiving was a clothesline.
Stossel even claims to have co-invented “ambush journalism,” meaning
that he’d find a conman walking to his car and follow him around with a camera man asking him questions.
Many of Stossel’s targets were genuine quacks, but he began to rethink some of the charges and implications his consumer reporting made. He and most other journalists accused capitalism per-se of making life more dangerous for everyone, and “objectively” demanded that regulations be passed to stifle the free market’s alleged cruelties.
But by the early 1990s, Stossel began noticing that crooked
businesspeople were the exception — that ”’most”’ corporations made the world better, increasing the average American lifespan from 47 in 1900 to 65 by 1977. And he saw how regulations seldom stopped cheats, while they curtailed honest businesses.
The commonest regulation that his stories inspired was for local
governments to insist that no business could operate without expensive certifications. Established businesses then used this as an opportunity to persuade the regulators to shut down smaller competitors who were honest but couldn’t afford all the costs the regulations imposed.
And Stossel noted that journalists screamed sensationalistic headlines about supposedly corporation-created dangers while ignoring what were statistically larger threats.
One producer ordered him to do a story on BIC lighters exploding in
users’ hands. Stossel informed him that exploding lighters kill fewer than 10 people/year, while buckets kill 40 people/year, so it would make more sense to do an expos