John Strossel, Gadfly

Air Date: 
Thursday, December 13, 2012
Tom Shipka

We begin with a question. Who is the TV investigative reporter whose career spans forty-three years, who has won no fewer than nineteen Emmys and five National Press Club awards, and who is a libertarian who celebrates free markets and denigrates government? If you answered "John Stossel," you're right on the money. (1) Although it is now six years old, Stossel's book, Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity, (2) remains the best distillation of his body of work over the years. Let's focus on parts of his discussion of two topics in this book - the media and public schools. (3)Stossel pulls no punches with his journalistic peers. Many, he says, are scaremongers. They file stories that instill fear because "fear sells." What's more, he insists, when it comes to science and economics, reporters are "clueless." Of the many examples that he cites, here are two.

We often get news stories about potentially fatal carcinogens in thousands of food products due to pesticides. To evaluate these stories, Stossel interviewed the scientist who invented the tests to screen for carcinogens in food and other products. He is Dr. Bruce Ames of the University of California at Berkeley. In the interview, Dr. Ames assured Stossel and the TV audience that worries about foods causing cancer are silly because the level of pesticides in them is so low.

Next, virtually every time that gas prices go up, reporters sound the alarm that they are "going through the roof." "Hold on," Stossel objects. If reporters took the time to figure out how to adjust gas prices for inflation, they would discover that the cost of gas in recent years is actually cheaper that it was eighty years ago!

As for America's public schools, Stossel charges that they are failing by any reasonable standard. The reason? They are government-run monopolies which perform like any other monopoly – poorly. To make his case, he cites data from international tests which show two things: U.S. students of all age groups place far down the list from their peers in many other nations, including those which spend much less per-pupil than we do, and the longer students spend in our public schools, the worse they perform in such tests. (4) There is only one way to salvage education in America, according to Stossel - competition. To achieve this, he says, Government should give all parents vouchers so that they can select their child's school, secular or religious, or opt for home schooling. "Vouchers," he is confident, "will make all schools better." (5) Thus, for Stossel, we need government-funded but not government-run schools.

Are Stossel's attacks on reporters justified and are vouchers the key to progress? Certainly accuracy takes a back seat to speed and audience impact in many cases, (6) and some reporters lack the knowledge to tackle some assignments competently. But, should we blame only reporters for these problems? How about management? As for vouchers, we've had over two decades of experience with voucher-driven competition and there is little evidence that they have triggered significant overall improvement in education across the nation.

A few years ago John Stossel moved from ABC, where he worked for twenty-eight years, to Fox News. (7) Despite the move, he remains an irreverent and often infuriating gadfly who finds a way to offend virtually everyone sooner or later.

  1. When Stossel graduated from Princeton in 1969 with a degree in political science, he had a stutter which he overcame with the help of a clinic in Roanoke,Virginia. After stints as a TV news reporter in Portland, Oregon, and New York City, Roone Arledge hired him at ABC in 1981 where he won national acclaim.
  2. Hyperion, 2006. The subtitle is Get Out the Shovel – Why Everything You Know is Wrong.
  3. Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity has twelve chapters in which Stossel defends or disputes no fewer than 228 claims.
  4. Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity, pp. 108-109.
  5. Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity..., p. 135. As long as parents receive the vouchers and choose their child's school, even if religious, vouchers do not violate the separation of church and state, according to Stossel.
  6. The saying in the news industry is "If it bleeds, it leads.
  7. "Stossel joined Fox News in 2009. At Fox News, he writes a blog called "John Stossel's Take," hosts his own prime time news show on Thursdays, and appears as a weekly guest on The O'Reilly Factor. He also writes a syndicated newspaper column.

© 2012 Tom Shipka