TCS Daily

John Stossel Gets a Break

By Tim Cavanaugh - March 5, 2004 12:00 AM

In the half-dozen or so years I've been aware of his presence, John Stossel has let me down only once. That was about a year ago, when his popular "Give Me A Break" segment on ABC-TV's 20/20 ran a report on "Lingerie Barbie." America's sweetheart, it seems, is pursuing an older demographic through a new line of merry widow bustiers, thigh-high stockings, peek-a-boo peignoirs, and other scintillating intimates (many of them accented by a dainty pink bow!). Ridiculous? Sure. Offensive to good taste? Without a doubt. But other than giving a few harmless pervs a chance to dress the footlong polystyrene temptress like a slut, does Lingerie Barbie gear really pose a threat to the commonweal? Here we go, I thought: Stossel's building up for a zinger! In a minute he'll bring on some child protection bluenoses or product liability buttinskis to announce their campaign against the doll, then dismantle their alarmist claims in true Stossel style, ending with his world-famous motto, "Give me a break!" Alas, I was disappointed; the feature was merely a typical TV outrage, a two minutes' hate against a doll. When he delivered his tagline, it was Lingerie Barbie herself, not her foes, who owed Stossel a break.

It's a sign of just how powerfully Stossel has redeemed the discredited art of television consumer advocacy that when he lets easy indignation (the lifeblood of the TV newsman) trump common sense, it should come as a surprise. Outside the veteran consumer reporter's tiny safe zone of rationality, TV news remains dominated by breathless Kent Brockmans scaring the bejesus out of us with tales of crack babies and lethal toasters, issuing raised-eyebrow demands for universal health care for cats. Stossel alone stands firm amid the panic.

Give Me a Break, Stossel's ornery, breezy manifesto, is a combination Bildungsroman, memoir, and greatest-hits recital. Though it bears the subtitle "How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media," anybody expecting another wheezing Philippic in the manner of Bernard Goldberg's Bias or Ann Coulter's Slander -- books in which the new media elite hurl invective, Animal Farm-style, at the old media elite -- will be disappointed. Without a doubt, Stossel is part of the media elite. He's just honest enough to admit it.

Full disclosure: I am an editor at Reason magazine; in this book, Stossel cites Reason as a formative intellectual influence and makes some use of our magazine's "Free Minds and Free Markets" slogan. Naturally, I see his growth from a crusading gotcha TV reporter into a libertarian contrarian at odds with most of the government's functions as a simple journey from the path of excess to the palace of wisdom. I also share Stossel's skepticism toward all influential bodies -- scientific and religious, rightwing and left, big business and activist -- and suspect all are equally happy to see the government grow larger year by year. Your own appreciation of the book will probably depend on how much of a Stossel fan you are going in.

As a best-of-Stossel, the book is impressive. It reads the way his show sounds. If you've spent much time watching ABC generally, and the "Give Me a Break" segments of 20/20 in particular, much of the text will be familiar to you. You can practically hear the gadfly's quizzical, nasal tone of voice as you're reading.

Arranging material from assorted television shows into book form allows it to breathe in another way: Rather than reading about a collection of outrages by the nanny state, we get a systematic critique of the sloppy thinking and crabbed sense of entitlement that allows the nanny state to grow. Stossel is an especially sharp observer of this phenomenon because he delights in telling us about his own sloppy thinking: The first half of the book recounts his development as a rational critic of regulation. Stossel grew wealthy and famous as a do-gooder muckraker exposing corporate swindles. It was, as he notes, only when he began to lump government and sanctimonious activists in with the swindlers that the Emmys stopped coming (though he has grown even more successful). While he makes all the familiar arguments here -- that one-size-fits-all regs punish innovators, that cost/benefit analyses and relative risk assessments are rarely done in politics, and so on -- his strongest suit is an essential sympathy with the mentality he excoriates.

Unlike Saint Paul, however, Stossel didn't convert to the religion of his former enemies. At heart, he remains an advocate of the little guy -- the book's most tragic passages concern mom and pop hairstylists and professionally tossed dwarfs put out of business by well-intentioned regulations. More important, his development was more than a simple change of political affiliation. It was an expansion of a viewpoint: We can all agree that kicking puppies is a national scourge; it takes a mature sensibility to understand that a Puppy Kicking Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would trivialize governance and not solve the problem.

Sadly, I cannot argue with this passage from the book: "Most Americans don't seem upset about the Nanny State. I hear few complaints about regulation. Watching the news, I mostly hear people asking for more rules." It's not clear whether free marketers are winning or losing the hearts and minds of the American people. International free trade seems to have reached a new low in public support. New regulations and eminent domain abuses appear every day. Many self-professed libertarians would, I suspect, not be uncomfortable with enhanced search and seizure powers, a renewed military draft, or mandatory jail time for paparazzi.

This is why Stossel is such a vital figure. Compared to TV (or for that matter, radio, movies, the web, and probably streetcorner bullhorn preaching), books cannot really be called a mass medium, but it's still heartening to see Stossel joining the ranks of such bestselling hysterics as Al Franken (the former funnyman turned liberal blowhard) and Sean Hannity (the male Rosie O'Donnell).

It's even more heartening that he is the host of a network television show. If you've spent much time in libertarian circles, you know what a cramped, wonkish, misanthropic group these folks can be. Stossel is a genius with the common touch. I can't think of anybody who is better suited to a large public forum -- a journalist whose appreciation of America extends beyond flag-waving or good government pieties, and toward a true appreciation of freedom in all its hog-stompin', risk-takin', Barbie-fetishizin' glory.


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