'Propagandist' for liberty
Geoff Metcalf interviews ABC reporter John Stossel

By Geoff Metcalf
John Stossel has been an investigative journalist for ABC's "20/20" since 1981. An unabashed proponent of individual liberty, responsibility and free markets, he has received 19 Emmy awards, five awards for Excellence in Consumer Reporting from the National Press Club and numerous other citations for journalistic excellence. Stossel's popular "Give me a break" video segments can be viewed online.

Question: It is kind of fascinating that the very same boomers of the '60s who wrapped themselves in the protections of the First Amendment get annoyed anytime anyone articulates a view or opinion that seems to be contrary to theirs. Frankly, I was annoyed when I saw an article in Salon.com that was really a hit piece on John Stossel from ABC. In fact, the headline is "Prime Time Propagandist."

Answer: That's me, the "Prime Time Propagandist."

Q: You must be saying something that is not considered to be adequately politically correct.

A: Clearly. And they are very good at smearing. This month, I have had an attack in Brill's Content. They won't even use the pictures ABC provides. Instead they include an ugly drawing.

They are really thorough. They interviewed my high school classmates, and so many people, looking for dirt -- and they end up quoting the guy from FAIR and Ralph Nader and the totalitarian left.

Then you've got this article you talked about and letters from FAIR to my bosses -- they are very effective at running a campaign.

Q: It really appears to be a campaign. They did throw you a left-handed compliment: "Though Stossel's special reports for ABC news are conservative, they are good journalism." Apparently, they don't like "good journalism".

A: They just don't like what they call propaganda. Liberty makes them uncomfortable.

Q: We spend a lot of time complaining about the mainstream. You are a member of the mainstream.

A: So far. They're trying to get me fired, but so far, I'm a member of the mainstream.

Q: What has been the reaction from your colleagues to this assault?

A: Mostly my colleagues ignore me about most things because they don't agree with my reporting. There hasn't been much reaction to this. The brunt of the Salon article and the Brill's piece is that not just am I doing this on television, but this "Stossel in the Classroom" project -- where we are trying to get schools to use some of my older economics specials to explain free markets to kids -- this seems to really set them off.

Also, I make these speeches, and I don't take money for the speeches and I give the money to charity and somehow they turn that against me -- because some of the money I gave to this "Stossel in the Classroom" project. But I would think that that would just show that I believe in it and I am willing to put my own money into it. It's not like I'm getting paid for it. I get in trouble if I got paid, but if I give money I get criticized for that too.

Q: It's fascinating also that they are not just satisfied at throwing rocks at John Stossel. They don't even like your footnotes, and the people to whom you attribute facts.

A: They point out that in the "Stossel in the Classroom" site, the student notes include a lot of footnotes that refer to the Heritage Foundation, and conservative organizations. That criticism I can at least understand.

Q: What don't you understand?

A: That they are freaked out that I am doing it, that I want to get ideas about how free markets work into the classroom.

Q: The tag line in this Salon piece says they quote the Heritage, CATO, the Hoover Institute and others, and they say "... they are not exactly the sources a skeptical reader would find convincing. ..." What is not "convincing" about historical facts in evidence?

A: They would argue these are interest groups and they, as "skeptical readers," don't find Heritage convincing.

Q: Well, I guess it depends on the definition of "skeptical," John. Anything that contradicts "their" preconceived opinions -- and they seem to think Big Brother can take better care of us than we can -- seems to them in some way to be evil or insidious?

A: Capitalism seems to be evil to them, and to a lot of the people in my business, and to these Washington activists groups. It's kind of like being a child molester to be a capitalist. They say it with the same sneer.

And the idea that an ABC correspondent is singing the virtues of free markets and freedom -- and including "capitalism" in that -- how disgusting, and threatening.

Q: What I find particularly hypocritical is that these same leftists are the people who, in the '60s, when they were railing against government, were draping themselves in the First Amendment and the protections guaranteed. And now if someone articulates a view that is contrary to their position, they want to in some way bridle you, or label you a propagandist, and denigrate the information you present which is factual.

A: That's true. But they do respect the First Amendment. They don't want me put in jail. They just want me fired.

Q: Please explain what "Stossel in the Classroom" is all about.

A: ABC has spent half a million dollars doing these shows like, "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" and "Is America Number One?" which talk about economic freedom. And they really give video examples of how free markets work, how they've helped make America great. Teachers kept writing in, saying, "Gee, I wish I had taped that, because it would really be useful to explain to my students how ambition works, how profits fuel more profits and are not necessarily evil."

And so this charity, which did the Milton Friedman "Free to Choose" series on public television, said, let's sell these to classrooms. So they have organized a little business to do that, and frankly, we need some help. If you have any people in your audience who are looking for a new business to be in, we'd love to have you join us.

We are now selling these to classrooms. It is accompanied by economic texts written by some teachers at George Mason University. Salon objects to that.

Q: Salon is offended at your having a forum to articulate your views and opinions. They really seem upset that you have taken this information and moved it into the classroom. But isn't that where it really belongs?

A: I think so. It's kids who need this. It's kids who say things like ... if you ask a high school kid, "Somebody buys a bunch of products from X and then sells them to Y for a dollar more -- should that be legal?" Half of them will say, "No, that should be illegal."

There is very little understanding of how capitalism works. And certainly no acknowledgment that it has made America a good place to live and lifted millions of people out of poverty.

Q: They take exception to John Fund from the Wall Street Journal being connected with this conservative foundation that is funding this program, and Professor Walter Williams, and John Stossel, this "Prime Time Propagandist." I don't see any criticism of Norman Lear's group of FAIR.

A: Well, no you don't. You won't see that criticism.

Q: I stumbled across a quote from Katherine Graham of the Washington Post who said, "Truth and News are not the same thing. ..." I guess that's true when you read Salon.

A: I think that's true.

Q: How can people get copies of this egregious, controversial capitalist propaganda, like the piece you did on greed?

A: The easiest way is probably is to get them through Laissez Faire Books at 800-326-0996. They have all kinds of interesting books about liberty.

Q: These series of specials you are doing are interesting. Last time we talked you had aired, "Is America Number One?" What is next in the series? Have you decided yet?

A: Yes. On March 23 -- unfortunately up against "E.R." -- it's about free speech. And then I also have my "Give Me a Break" segments on ABC every Friday.

Q: Wait a minute. A special on Free Speech? Did you interview anyone from "Salon"?

A: (laughing) Uh, No.

Q: John, since this heightened campaign against you is getting more ink now, are the people at ABC even responding to it? Are they saying, "Hey John, lighten up?" or "Keep at it!" Or are they just ignoring you?

A: They don't talk to me about it. They don't seem concerned, the ones I have talked to. They may just be totaling up the accusations until they do dump me. I don't know.

Or maybe they just feel, as long as they are talking about us, it's a good thing. I don't know. They want to be thought of as "respectable" in their circles.

I think they acknowledge that my pieces on 20/20 these days, the "Give Me a Breaks" are point of view pieces. But there is a limit to how much point of view I can give that they are comfortable with.

Q: The program you did on the tobacco tax was really excellent -- the way it laid out the case, and the way the process is manipulated to just funnel money into left-wing groups.

A: That's another example of a story I really liked. I'm blown away how the public has just stood quietly while these lawyers looted the poor.

Q: Which may contribute to why Salon hates you so much, because you are exposing things like that. It is a hidden process that goes on all the time, and there are millions of dollars in money funneled into these private non-profit groups and lawyers' consortiums.

A: And Dan Rather just did a profile on "60 Minutes" of one of these trial lawyers and basically made him out to be a great American hero.

Q: How much contact do you have with the folks who put together "Stossel in the Classroom?" Or do they just take your work product from ABC and package it? And is ABC connected in any kind of symbiotic way?

A: Yes. ABC gets a cut of each sale. It's a license deal like ABC has done with a million other people. And any of the material that these people put out, the cover of it, an ABC executive takes a look at to be sure it doesn't look sleazy to him.

Q: One of the implications of your critics is that because it has an ABC logo on it -- and it has an ABC logo on it because they get a piece of the action -- the perception is that this is endorsed by ABC. And your critics say that is not true?

A: It should have been clear that the stuff written by George Mason University is not ABC material, and that should have been more clearly marked as separate, but the videotapes are clearly ABC, and ABC does endorse it. ABC doesn't put anything on the air it doesn't endorse. It doesn't mean they agree with every word, but that they found it to be fair and honest journalism.

Q: I actually found the definition of propaganda: "the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor, for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause or a person." Isn't that what every news organization does?

A: Well, that's fair. I'm trying to injure poverty and help liberty. So I guess I'm a propagandist.

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