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John Stossel: Pro or Con Man?
Dan Schneider

In the 1970s I recall watching John Stossel as a consumer advocate for WABC-TV in New York. He seemed to be a less sensationalistic Geraldo Rivera. Oy! What a quarter century has wrought.

Now, as one of the mainstays on ABC’s 20/20 JS has become little more than a shill for corporate America.
Granted, his network’s news division has become a joke over the last year or two, what with several ‘news’ specials about a mythic personage (Jesus Christ) and a fictive account of the JFK Assassination last November. But, I was stunned when on January 23rd the network actually gave JS a whole hour of ‘infomercial’ time to push his latest piece of disinformation. They gave him a whole hour to plug his book: Give Me A Break, predictably and profligately subtitled How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became The Scourge of the Liberal Media. As my dad would say, Ach du Lieber Gott in Himmel!

First, I thought Rush Limbaugh crowned himself that scourge? Instead, JS is merely a known, proven, and grudgingly admitted liar. Second, when he talks of the ‘Liberal Media’ does he mean folk like Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer, and Ted Koppel? Not exactly a bunch of bleeding hearts? Third, the ‘special 20/20 had a countdown of 10 Lies, Myths, and Downright Stupidity. Problem is that on that list were lies that were not, myths long debunked, and a stupidity that was his own.

Before I do my Casey Kasem let me just background JS a little for those who do not know his troubling past. In February of 2000, on a 20/20 segment called The Food You Eat, JS made some remarkably inane and downright fraudulent claims that organic food was not only not better than regular food, but worse- laced with higher amounts of the E. coli bacteria. Now, I do not buy in to all the organic nonsense myself. But the troubling aspect of this ‘exposé’ was that JS did not even attempt to hide the fact that his information was plain wrong in some cases and nonexistent in others.

One of the claims was that tests on pesticide levels on regular produce were no higher than those on organic produce. The New York Times, a few months later, exposed that Stossel declaimed that ‘fact’ while knowing that no such tests had ever been done. Later that year he championed the ‘odd’ notion that while ‘real’ tests had confirmed that dioxins were harmful to test animals this in no way meant humans were at any risk. We’s veggies, I suppose! A few years earlier a JS special of historical revisionism called Greed tried to paint that trait as a virtue, from the days of Robber Barons to Bill Gates. So what if those old guys lied, cheated, stole, and bullied their way in bilking many out of millions? Never even mentioning the use of thuggery and murder that would make Joe Hill and Jimmy Hoffa look like amateurs. Quoth JS: ‘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 is a consumer advocate speaking!? I doubt Enron, Worldcom, and three years of Depression have moved JS much considering the last century or so could be so neatly warped.

Any doubt that JS could merely be misinterpreting data (at least that which actually existed) have long since been answered. He willfully lies. Proof came in 1994 when a report called Are We Scaring Ourselves To Death? was aired. Two underlings whose research contradicted the slant JS wanted were rebuked, their data trashed, and they resigned in protest.

In 2001 JS had another public exposing. For an Earth Day special to debunk environmentalism JS went to a California school to ask kids their opinions on the environment. One father who witnessed the taping said that JS tried to lead the children in a chant that ‘All scientists agree that there is a greenhouse effect.’- to try to convince people that schoolteachers were actually leading the children in some Stepfordian Left Wing Green plot! Why would a ‘journalist’ with many Emmy awards have so dismal a track record? Well, perhaps because he’s one of only a few ‘journalists’ allowed by their corporate masters to actually speak on the lecture circuit in front of political groups for upwards of $200,000 per annum? Could it be that the tobacco industry funded right wing Cato Institute claims JS as a member? Repeat after me- Oy!

On to the infomercial. Let’s go down 10 to 1.
At 10 is the myth that cold temperatures make you cold. Um….I learned that was not so in 2nd grade- in 1972! No one I know has believed that for years. Of course it’s only the more confined close quarters of winters that facilitates the spread of viruses and bacteria. But, if you’re a member of Cato you still believe the 1950s were the height of human culture.
At 9 was the myth that most people have less free time. JS debunks this by having people keep journals to show they underestimate their free time. He also compares free time with that workers had a century ago. Yet, every study of the amount of time spent by individual workers and that in two income homes over the last 25 years shows that there is far less free time than we had in the 1960s or 1970s. This is selectively choosing which data to show and which to hide to make a point.
At 8 is the myth of a need for two family incomes. I agree in principle that a lot of this is ‘keeping up with the Joneses’- but the majority of two income homes are not rich people- but the working and poverty classes. The same argument could be made that no one need work full time. Just pitch a tent and enjoy nature!
At 7 is the biggest JS deception so far- the myth that money can buy happiness is debunked. JS shows that two rap stars now are more fulfilled as a preacher and philanthropist. They rail against money, yet only obviate JS’s point as they speak. It was not money that ruined their lives- but its love and pursuit. Someone made this point long before JS, no? Money can only give you more freedom in your life. If you screw up it’s your fault.
At 6 we get ‘Republicans shrink government’. This bit was designed to show JS as ‘impartial’. Who but Republicans has EVER believed that?
At 5 we get more fact-twisting. The myth is that the rich don’t pay their fair share. How does JS wiggle out of this one? First he sets up a moron- fellow con man Al Sharpton- to blather away until JS ‘confronts’ him with the ‘fact’ that the top 1% of America actually pays 34% of the taxes, not the 5-15% Sharpton claimed. Sounds impressive, eh? Well, of course the top 1% are gonna pay more, but the truer indicator of whether or not this is fair is to analyze what % of the total American wealth and income that top 1% pays. A quick check with the IRS and the Tax Foundation reveals that the top 1% pays 33.89% of the taxes (as of 2001) yet owns 38.1% of the ‘reported wealth’ and generated over 40% of the ‘reported income’. The key word is ‘reported’ for we all know that what wealthy individuals and corporations squirrel away vast sums in tax shelters legal and not. This does not even account for bad bookkeeping. As example, in 2001 I worked at AT&T, which on the front page of its company newspaper touted that in 2000 it had paid about $4 billion in taxes to the local state and Federal governments. What dutiful citizens! A month or so later the same paper had a back page article detailing the $4.9 billion in ‘aid’ the US gave the company so it could buy up companies in the Far East and compete in cable. In short, AT&T ended up being financed to the tune of nearly a billion dollars (which its moronic CEO pissed away in bad investments that tanked)- all the while it could legitimately claim to be a good taxpaying corporate citizen. Some other interesting things. In the 1980s the top tax rates were lowered from nearly 70% to 35%. This was not a windfall? Yet the IRS reports that the top 1% averaged paying taxes on 27.5% of their ‘reported income’, while the middle class paid 28% of their reported income. JS never mentioned this, I assure you.
Another unreported factor is that the top 1% had a net worth rise of over 100% in the 1990s. That 100% figure saw only about an 18% increase in the percentage of taxes that group paid. Another point missed is that if you take away 40% of a million dollar income that taxpayer is still sitting pretty at 600k, while even an untaxed poverty level family is in the dumpster. This is a simple notion known as progressivity- one of the hallmarks of fairness in taxation.
At 4 we get the canard that ‘chemicals are killing us’. As proof JS defends DDT by stating that its deleterious health effects came from overuse and that many Africans could be saved from malaria if DDT were used sparingly. While this is true in regards to DDT, note that JS claimed chemicals (plural) are killing us and could only manage a single instance where this claim is only partially true. As for all the chemicals in our food, lawns, garments, etc., well- distortion is time consuming.
Besides, 3 awaits.
That is ‘guns are bad’. Well, only a minority of people agree with that in the first place. Believe it or not the NRA position is in the majority, so here’s another myth that was never a myth! Any online search for gun statistics confirms that guns are used far more often in defense than crime. And did we not know that gun laws don’t deter criminals? I knew that from my youth. You must’ve seen Scared Straight?
At 2 we get ‘we’re drowning in garbage’.
This bizarre myth no one has ever claimed. JS recycled an old 1987 floating garbage barge tale that became a national joke to inflict this upon us. Implicit in the telling, though, is that consumerism is good and recycling a plot to annoy you.
At 1 we get the Chicken Littleism of ‘Life is getting worse’. Yes, most mouth that but most people don’t really believe it - nor was it something that needed ‘exposing’. Jeez! Then again, no one should expect much from John Stossel nor infomercials. That ABC still allows this known fraud and liar to pose as a ‘consumer advocate’ is bad enough, but to give him a full hour to promote his book is a new low- even for ABC. But, since they keep resurrecting the myth, I can only shake my head and wonder ‘What would Jesus say?’
© Dan Schneider Feb 2004
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