The ABC newsmagazine 20/20 was appointment television for me when I was growing up. Every Friday at 10 p.m. I watched a few other similar shows — Primetime Live, Dateline NBC when it started, though not 60 Minutes, which struck me as too serious — but 20/20, hosted at the time by Barbara Walters and a rapidly withering Hugh Downs, was the only one I tried never to miss. Always a highlight were the segments presented by John Stossel.
Back then Stossel wasn’t on every week. His reports were a treat, like a crumb of sugar cookie or an extra ladle of gruel at evening mealtime. (I never mentioned it before, but I was raised in a Dickensian workhouse. I hated it at the time, but now, you know, I wouldn’t change a thing. I wonder whatever happened to those lads at the spike . . .) Stossel would report on things like government waste, or irrational fears. He’d challenge popular notions like the supremacy of the United States, and question conventional wisdom. He was an advocate for the consumer, and a champion of common sense. Bill O’Reilly sells himself as the guy who’s “looking out for you,” but Stossel seemed to actually be that guy.
So what the fuck happened? How did John Stossel go from the guy I used to watch on 20/20, keeping corporations honest, calling bullshit on superstition and pseudoscience, to the guy who now hosts a show in the Fox Business Channel and argues that private businesses should have the legal right to refuse service to any customer whose skin pigmentation is a shade too dark for the liking of the owner?
The answer, according to Stossel himself, is that he gradually grew (or shrank) from a liberal wanting to see fairness and justice for all, to a libertarian who believed that the free market was the best way — the only way — to secure those benefits for people. He, like his more overtly batshit colleague Glenn Beck, is a believer in the great libertarian fairy tale that if only the government would withdraw completely from private life, eliminate the income tax, and rescind all health, safety and environmental regulations, the profit motive would ensure that everyone got along, behaved themselves, treated each other right, and lived happily ever after.
That I find this total bullshit will be no surprise if you’ve read this blog before. But it’s not just Stossel’s libertarian utopianism that makes me wonder what broke his brain since I watched him on 20/20 in the mid-1990s. It’s the fact that he joined the chorus of reactionary right-wing douchebags who called President Obama asking BP to set aside money to pay for damages caused by its oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico — the worst environmental disaster in history — a “shakedown.” It’s the fact that he accepts the existence of man-made global warming, but insists it’s no big deal and that attempts to minimize its effects will be far more dangerous. It’s the fact that he doesn’t seem to be a very honest man — he’s misquoted sources, massaged statistics, and failed to disclose conflicts of interest more than a few times according to his page at the Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting website.
Stossel isn’t Glenn Beck. He’s got brains and the ability to project competence and trustworthiness. Yet don’t let the newsman polish and porn star mustache fool you. Stossel might sincerely be looking out for you, but you owe it to yourself to listen to another lookout.