John Stossel is an internationally renowned investigative journalist for the ABC television network. Stossel graduated from Princeton University with a B.A. in psychology in 1969. After working as a researcher for KGW-TV in Portland and as consumer editor for WCBS-TV in New York City, Stossel joined the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 in 1981. He began doing one-hour prime-time specials in 1994. Stossel’s first special, Are We Scaring Ourselves To Death?, examined exaggerated fears over risks such as crime and pollution. It was followed by The Blame Game, which looked at Americans’ growing tendency to blame their misfortunes on others. The relentlessly objective probing continued in Junk Science: What You Know That May Not Be So, which exposed bogus scientific claims, and Freeloaders, focused on how getting “something for nothing” appeals to all of us, including rich people who use the power of government to help themselves. These and many other specials, including Boys and Girls Are Different, Love, Lust and Marriage, and The Mystery of Happiness and The Trouble with Lawyers have earned Stossel uncommon praise: “the most consistently thought-provoking TV reporter of our time” (Dallas Morning News), “has the gift for entertaining while saying something profound” (Orlando Sentinel). In a new segment for 20/20, “Give Me a Break,” Stossel has taken skeptical looks at people who want to censor cartoons, regulate flagpoles, and have Congress rule on what prices are “fair.”
Stossel has received 19 Emmy Awards. He has been honored five times for excellence in consumer reporting by the National Press Club. Among his other awards are the George Polk Award for Outstanding Local Reporting and the George Foster Peabody Award.
Q: Where did you grow up and what kinds of ideas influenced your early thinking?
Stossel: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, in Wilmette, IL, of immigrant parents who probably influenced me by making me feel that you had to work for everything you got.
Q: Where did they come from?
Stossel: Germany. My mother used to say that if I didn’t study hard in high school I wouldn’t get into a good college and if there was trouble ahead I would freeze in the dark.
Q: Sounds like a good philosophy! So, what did you do professionally before your ABC job and spots on 20/20?
Stossel: I worked first for an NBC station in Portland, Oregon for four years after college, and then for eight years in New York for the local CBS station.
Q: A few years ago, FOX tried to lure you away from ABC. What was it about you that they were after? Given your current political opinions, one might think that you would not be in such demand.
Stossel: You would have to ask Rupert Murdoch. I hope he was after me because he thought I did a good job.
Q: Speaking as a student of psychology, what kinds of techniques do you use with a hostile interviewee that can get the subject to open up and reveal himself or the truth?
Stossel: It is interesting that you ask in the context of a background of psychology. I’m not conscious of how that has helped. I have always simply approached people as I would have it done to me. I am curious about things and if people don’t give me direct answers I like to keep reframing the question in the hope of getting an answer. It just comes out naturally.
Q: In the 1980’s you did some alarmist type reporting; exploding coffee pots and the dangers of Alar. You recently told Reason that you are embarrassed about some of that today. Having been there and done that, what kind of thinking leads reporters to engage in fear-mongering?
Stossel: Here the market encourages sensationalism. More people will read my paper if I warn you of a danger than if I say that it’s safe; more will watch my program. It’s also the bias of any individual to talk about a problem. When people are gossiping out by the back fence, they are not talking about who is being faithful to their spouse. If the plane crashes it is far more interesting to us than the miracle of millions of planes landing safely. The news is biased to being alarmist. But if the market works people will eventually wise up and reward those media that are less alarmist. That’s my hope.
Q: What show have you done that you the most proud of, and why?
Stossel: Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?, because I deeply believe that we have to focus on ranking risks and deciding which should get the most resources and because it was my first, and I had to fight so hard to get it on.
Q: What was the major objection to it?
Stossel: That it was not journalism, but bizarre theory.
Q: What kind of reception did it have once it aired?
Stossel: Wonderful. Good ratings and thousands of wonderful letters from people saying “Thank God, somebody finally spoke common sense.”
Q: And the people who said it was a weird idea, they were silent?
Stossel: Very. Well, not totally, but mostly.
Q: What were the major realizations that led to your shift from left-of-center to more libertarian views? Were there any specific events or discoveries you made that changed your thinking?
Stossel: No, just gradual exposure to real life.
Q: To what extent have the ideas of Ayn Rand been a factor?
Stossel: Minimally. I read The Fountainhead in college and liked it but then somehow, working for the first ten of my twenty-eight years as a reporter, I was not exposed to any such ideas, they were just not on the radar screen. By co-incidence, I am now reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time and I am thrilled and astonished that this woman could know so much so many years before everyone else did and express it so beautifully. And express some of the theories I feel in my stomach, as I go out to do battle.
Q: Do you part ways with Objectivism in any significant respect?
Stossel: I’m too ignorant to part ways. I have met, and am delighted by David Kelley. I have met other Objectivists who I find smart and stimulating. I am puzzled and bewildered by some feud which I know little about and don’t think I want to know about, and I’m puzzled by the intensity which some people will disagree over Objectivism.
Q: How did you meet David Kelley, and why did you choose him to be in one of your upcoming programs? And when it is airing?
Stossel: “Greed” is the title and it will be airing February 3, 1998, in place of NYPD Blue at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday night. I don’t know where I met David Kelley, though I had met him someplace…. But separately, the producers who work with me interviewed several dozen people who have opinions about greed, and he was one of the ones who most stimulated them.
Q: You said in the Reason interview that to have someone on your show, he must be dynamic; that even though the person may have good ideas, he may not come across well on camera. What made you think that David Kelley would be good on camera?
Stossel: Frankly, I didn’t think he would. But he surprised me by being very good. On television it is important to express important ideas simply and briefly. Scientists always complain that they don’t want to appear on television because we won’t give them a chance to make their full point, that it will take an hour and we will only give them minutes. I would argue, there are many things you can say briefly. “Give me liberty or give me death.” “The government that governs best governs least.” Or George Washington saying: “Government is not reason, government is not persuasion, government is force. It is a dangerous servant.” Kelley, in talking about capitalism, could synthesize complicated points in similar ways. I’m not at this point going to disclose what he says or what we will use. In fact, we haven’t even completed that project.
Q: You were recently at the “Atlas and the World” event hosted by the Cato Institute and IOS. How did you become involved as a speaker and what was your impression of the event?
Stossel: I like to rush back to my family after I speak so I did not attend the event beyond my appearance. I liked the people I met there. I got involved because someone from Cato, whose name I can’t now remember, invited me, and I said yes.
Q: On an episode of Politically Incorrect last March, Hugh Downs made some positive remarks about libertarians. Can we guess that you might have had some influence there?
Stossel: I think his son has much more influence on Hugh than I do.
Q: Do you know his son?
Stossel: I do not know him but I know he is a believer in liberty.
Q: What is the primary professional virtue of an investigative reporter? Is it objectivity, or what would you say?
Stossel: Finding out the truth. Letting the information market work by letting people know where people are misleading others, cheating others, and hurting others.
Q: In your opinion, how does the profession measure up in general?
Stossel: Fair. We do keep people informed of the big threats and the big schemes. We also sensationalize and don’t think critically enough.
Q: Is it getting better or worse, and why?
Stossel: I don’t know. I’m not wise enough to answer that, but I am pleased that we have so many more choices of media now. I’m also saddened that there’s not one voice that everyone listens to.
Q: What do you think of Rush Limbaugh?
Stossel: I think he is often witty and wise …. He once summarized Atlas Shrugged for a listener in under a minute. I thought that was very well done.