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A Free Journalist

John Stossel exposes hucksters, cheats, and scam artists.

By 5.19.04

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In review: Give Me A Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media… by John Stossel (HarperCollins, 294 pages, $24.95)

When I think of John Stossel, I confess to an ignoble feeling: jealousy. Damn that guy. When he was a fledgling TV reporter, making his mark as a "consumer correspondent," that trendy and perfectly wrongheaded journalistic creation of the 1970s, I had already figured it all out. I already knew, as a print reporter cum editorial writer, that on nearly every count freedom worked to the advancement of consumer well-being, whereas intrusive regulation set us all back.

It took a few more years of slogging, all entertainingly told here, for Stossel to learn. Learn he did -- ferociously, joyfully. But Stossel's now a big network star, probably protected in his status precisely because of his contrarian posture. He was surrounded by colleagues who reviled him, but they were forced to put up with him because Stossel had already built his own audience: thoughtful Americans who wanted journalists not so much to warn them about toxins in their pajamas as about threats to their freedom posed by idiotic lawmakers.

And I, who knew the libertarian truth well before he? Oh, shut up, Grubbs; you've got a great and deeply satisfying gig teaching aspiring journalists how to cover government.

Which is why I'm thinking of using Give Me a Break as a textbook. There are fine texts on the techniques of broadcast news, of course, but nothing compares to this for substance. It's applicable to ink-stained wretches as well.

A TIP TO THOSE WHO want to toil in the media: The prevalent attitude still, after years of complaints, lost circulation, and decreased market share, is that newswriting can only justify itself if it leads to "change." Prestigious journalism awards actually make it a criterion that a reporter's work must have prompted legislation. You can follow that formula and win an award, at the same time feeding the state's expansive appetites. Or you can follow John Stossel's example, both riskier and more rewarding.

What makes this book invaluable is its recovery of an earlier role for journalism. That role is difficult if not impossible for too many of Stossel's colleagues, brought up in a time when the Fourth Estate assumes the role of fourth branch of government, to grasp or articulate. But articulate it someone must: The press, to call it what the Founders did, is to serve as a check on the growth of government. Even today, citizens will reward those parts of the media that champion that which is most meaningful to them: their freedoms.

Stossel has settled, with a few harrumphs, on a libertarian worldview, which enables him to pose questions few other elite journalists will. He grew into that self-affirming cloak, he says, by reading Reason magazine and studying the late, great Prof. Aaron Wildavsky, whose entertaining lectures "taught me how risk taking makes life safer."

Eschewing the "conservative" taxonomy, he averts the trap of being yet another right-wing jihadist against the liberal media, his subtitle notwithstanding. He builds credibility by not advocating regulations in the social sphere or making the case for "big government conservatism," as some of my best friends have resignedly done.

Stossel rehearses many of the familiar arguments against economic and environmental regulation. These are the arguments you'll have digested from, say, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, or from Reason, but you're not bloody likely to find them served up so delectably by anyone other than Stossel on one of the non-cable networks.

Then he applies his deregulationist views consistently into the social and interpersonal realm. "In America," he writes with disgust for those who would foreclose discussion, "there's little interest in legalizing any drug. Authorities even discourage debate about it. Willie Williams, Los Angeles's former police chief, said, 'It's simply wrong, and it should not be even discussed here in America.'

"Don't even discuss it?" Stossel pleads. "Authorities fear that talking about legalization sends the wrong signal -- tells kids we don't think drugs are harmful. But that's shortsighted. Legalizing something doesn't mean we think it's okay. We condemn cruelty and hatred without trying to make them illegal. Let people condemn. But let's not pretend going to war against behaviors millions of people enjoy will make life better. It makes it worse."

THAT SORT OF COMMONSENSICAL comment will, naturally, enrage those who dare not question the need for police intruding into such delicate, spiritual matters as drug addiction. So Stossel will lose some conservative supporters. But he carries the same great good sense into sensitive issues such as workplace comportment, where he finds a trainer interpreting sexual harassment laws and prescribing even the blandest behavior.

"Everyone must become bland? I don't want to! I want to laugh, joke, flirt. One seminar participant complained [the trainer's] rules would make the workplace 'cold, unhealthy, less fun.' Yet by seminar's end, [the trainer] had convinced most participants that workplace speech should be censored.

"How easily we give up our freedoms," sighs Stossel.

And he's right. The intrusion of the law into every aspect of our lives has sown confusion about what is appropriate to say or not say and spread insecurity and victimhood among those to whom benign flirtations are directed. It is rapidly making life bland and joyless. Stossel relishes his opportunity to call such tendencies into question and, yes, make arguments against them.

Arguments? Is that what an objective reporter/anchor is supposed to be making? Forget for a moment that in TV news especially a human being cannot report the facts without inflection. The alternative would be monotonous, and Stossel rejects that kind of blandness as well. He has found a deeper and more authentic objectivity. He did it, paradoxically, by making his bias known. If you declare your bias in favor of freedom, that means you want the consumers of your reportage to possess all relevant information, the better to make decisions over their own lives.

Nor should journalists imagine themselves to be neutral conveyers of information between self-government and government control. Most of Stossel's colleagues have fooled themselves into believing they can be neutral. In so doing, they have conferred legitimacy on government control and placed themselves in an ethical dungeon they cannot comprehend.

Stossel has opted for the sunlight. He has made himself a national treasure, one who'd bring a smile to Thomas Jefferson's face. He no longer wins Emmys and is all the happier for it. He should be studied as the paradigmatic journalist for our time.

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About the Author

K.E. Grubbs Jr. is director of the National Journalism Center and editor of TheReporter.us