TCS Daily

Stossel Attacks Global Warming and Other Media Scares

By Duane D. Freese - July 19, 2001 12:00 AM

"Patrick Henry never said, 'Give me absolute safety, or give me death," ABC news commentator John Stossel told a packed Capitol Hill luncheon Wednesday hosted by Tech Central Station and The Heritage Foundation.

The myth-busting, free-market oriented science and consumer reporter attacked the trend in the media to highlight only the scary and the dangerous. "The press doesn't do a good job. Here the market works against us; it is in our interest to scare you. More of you are going to watch 20/20 if I say, 'Tonight: Apple's will kill you,' than if I say, 'They are OK.' So, we tend to scare people," Stossel said.

He cited exaggerating dangers from such things as air crashes and toxic chemicals, compared with poverty, which overregulation can help create. And he pointed to media coverage of global warming.

"I had read the New York Times and the (Washington) Post and I had thought there was a consensus on that," he said. "I was astounded to learn that you have this one petition signed by 2,000 scientists (claiming problems with global warming) and it got lots of publicity, and there was no publicity for the petition signed by 17,000 other scientists who said it was not."

He was also "astounded" that activists who said the most recent report of the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change proved their was global warming and "we have to do something about it," weren't even comfortable referring to the report's scenarios on potential warming effects as "forecasts" or "predictions. "They call them storylines," he said. "And I was stunned that Time magazine will take the one in 500th possibility storyline as if that's just the truth. I'm stunned at the trend toward taking the worst picture and warming it up."

Stossel said he learned that there were alternative reasons for temperature increases, noting the sun spot study of Harvard astrophysicist and TCS Science for the Earth Co-host Sallie Baliunas, whom he interviewed for his special and who introduced him at the luncheon.

"Finally, I was surprised that most of the warming was in Siberia in the northern part of the world where they aren't complaining about going from minus 40 to minus 38," he concluded to laughter.

Stossel, who has drawn attacks from some environmental and consumer advocates for his recent reporting, recalled that "I once was beloved by the activists from the left" because for 20 years he shared their view that "capitalism is useful, but sort of cruel and often unfair and needed lots of intervention to keep business from screwing people."

"Intuitively we want a grand mommy to run our life and make life safe, and I certainly believed it for too many years. I'm embarrassed at how long it took me to see that regulation doesn't work; that it doesn't even do what it's intended to do," he said.

Stossel cited laws regulating illegal and legal drugs as examples. In the case of pharmaceuticals, he noted that it now takes about $500 million and 12 years to get a new drug approved. That may protect against some potentially harmful drugs from reaching the market, but he asked, "Is it worth it? I don't think so"

"What reporters don't tell us is that regulations by protecting us from bad things, protect us from good things too," he said. Nineteen fat substitutes are now going through the regulatory process, even as 5,000 people a year die from obesity, he declared.

"The Food and Drug Administration a few years ago said, 'This new beta blocker will save 14,000 lives a year.' But why didn't anyone get up and ask, 'Doesn't that mean you killed 14,000 people last year?' We don't ask that question. We don't think that way. We don't know who would be saved by freedom."

"Why do we need a police agency? Why couldn't the FDA be an information agency?" he asked. Even a private agency could provide that service for people who wanted to avoid risk. But then others, with fatal illnesses, he said, could take experimental drugs without breaking the law.

Trial lawyers, though, are a bad substitute for regulation, Stossel said. "Something has gone horribly wrong because of the lack of a loser pay system." He noted that lawyers, not victims, get most of the money, when defense and administrative costs are included. And often their suits don't protect victims, so much as discourage introduction of new and better products, as in the case of vaccines.

By overplaying trivial risks, the media has helped make people afraid of new things, and encouraged more regulation, Stossel said.

"Why in a free society do we allow government to draw all these lines?" Stossel asked. "We learn by the process of letting people be free. Let some engage in risk. From their risk taking we'll save other lives later.

"But there is something very off in the public debate, because all you hear from us in the media are scare stories of things we are exposed to. And we are exposed to things humans never saw before, food additives, invisible radiation chemicals. And what's the result, we're living much longer. We've increased life spans almost 30 years with the very technology we feared so much.

"What gave us that was not lawyers or government," Stossel concluded. "It was freedom and technology. And I hope that you will all fight for that."

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