20/20 and Good Morning America correspondent John Stossel has taken on everyone from freeloading celebrities to topics like ladies' nights and panhandling. Now, with his book Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media... (Perennial Currents, 2004), Stossel expounds on another target: the government. Exploring everything from his own role as a "welfare queen" to "the trouble with lawyers," along with overhyped health scares and other myths, he explores his transformation from trusting reporter to skeptical "classical liberal," recounting some of his most powerful, provocative and amusing newscasts.
Can you walk me through a typical story from beginning to end? Where does the idea come from and how long does a story’s research take?
It’s varied. I suggest maybe a third of the ideas, another two thirds come from either the boss or producers who work here. They do the initial research. It can take six months, some will take a day or two.
When you did your Are We Scaring Ourselves To Death special, two producers quit, but ABC let you proceed with the idea. How much editorial control do you have? Do you ever have to battle about doing a certain story?
I have to persuade my boss, but generally if I feel strongly about something and if he feels it won't be boring, I get to do it. As far as editorial control and how it’s scripted, I won’t say anything that I haven’t written or that I’m not happy with.
You write in your book Give Me A Break about how you came to the realization that it wasn’t just corporations that were the problem, but government itself, and you cite numerous examples. Was there any single defining moment or event that prompted this change?
Epiphany is misleading in that it suggests there was one moment. It was more gradual, and I’d rephrase your question to say that I discovered that government rips us off too. I always knew that, I just discovered that the people who do the most significant amount of damage are the ones who get to use force, and business can’t do that. As soon as I saw that, I saw how government and litigation wreck far more lives than business rips off.
Do you have any political aspirations?
No, I don’t have the social skills to be a politician.
What’s the most memorable story you’ve worked on over the years?
Probably my first prime time special, Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death? Two producers quit rather than work on it, saying it violated their journalistic standards because I was saying that some regulation does more harm than good. And I worried that ABC would kill it, but they didn’t.
You interact with viewers on your message board – how does getting such feedback affect your reporting? Does viewer feedback ever change your mind or prompt story ideas?
Yes to all of that, and we do read them. Very seldom does it lead to a story or to a change of fact, but sometimes it gets me to refine my argument or change part of it. It’s sent us back to the research to check things, butoften the accusations just turn out to be factual nonsense.
Can you tell me more about Stossel in the Classroom?
That’s very exciting for me. I was always frustrating that we would spend hundreds of thousands on ABC stories and they’d air once and disappear. Teachers said they used my specials in class, and sleepy students became passionately interested and argumentative. So this charity got ABC’s permission to distribute them to classrooms and we’re now in half of the public high schools in America, or government-run high schools.
How can an average person get involved if they see some sort of injustice?
If it’s national, they should write me a letter, two pages or less and send it to 7 West 66th Street, New York, NY 10023 or email it to me and if it’s local, they should contact someone like Arnold Diaz who does the Shame On You segment.
Do you consider yourself a Libertarian?
I just call it classical liberal – meaning the dignity of the individual and individual freedom is paramount. It doesn’t mean libertine, as some people think. Libertarians think as the founders did, that we need some government, but, like fire, government is a dangerous servant and a fiercesome master.
Does your family agree with your political views?
My children have acquired mine, and after 20 years of marriage, my wife has become a classical liberal, finally.
From being a conventional New York big government liberal.
Do you set out to be controversial?
I don’t know. I choose what interests me. Some I think is controversial because of the suffocatingly politically correct atmosphere that pervades the Northeast. I didn’t think to say that boys and girls are different would be controversial, but as Harvard’s president has discovered, it is.
John Stossel's 20/20 special on colorism airs tonight on ABC. Visit his webpage to find out more about John Stossel and his television specials, and Intheclassroom.org for more information about the Stossel in the Classroom program. Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media... is available now.