Interview: John Stossel, ABC News (1998)

Stossel Asks ‘Why Not’ on ‘Consenting Adults’

By Scott Holleran

ABC News reporter John Stossel, who practices advocacy journalism, which has resulted in frequent criticism from organizations that disagree with him, established himself as a unique voice in television reporting when he became a correspondent for ABC’s 20/20. The former consumer editor for Good Morning America began to anchor a series of popular TV specials in which he challenges widely accepted notions and sacred assumptions on both the right and the left. Stossel, 51, generally presents the relevant facts of an issue before he peppers the viewer with bold questions about work, science, love, sex, happiness and death. 

His special, Sex, Drugs and Consenting Adults is scheduled to air Tuesday. Stossel, who has won 19 Emmy Awards, was interviewed at ABC News in New York.

Scott Holleran: What is the focus of your new special, Sex, Drugs and Consenting Adults?

John Stossel: Well, the program addresses the question: Who owns your body? I want government to protect me from robbers and murderers, but, beyond that, why can’t I do what I want with my body as long as I don’t hurt someone? The program addresses assisted suicide, prostitution, drugs, sodomy, ticket scalping and other issues. It’s a basic freedom issue. 

I interviewed the head of the ACLU, the DEA, “
Mayflower Madam” Sydney Biddle Barrows, and my 92-year old father, who discusses how he wants to die.

Scott Holleran: What is your philosophy of reporting the news?

John Stossel: I believe that important news happens slowly. And that important news, generally, is not what my peers have covered – they have to cover what happened today. But important news, for example, is the invention of the birth control pill, the invention of the computer chip or the women’s movement. Or attitudes about greed, love and raising children. Things that happen slowly.

Scott Holleran: You started your career as a consumer reporter. How has your viewpoint developed?

John Stossel: Though I went to Princeton University
, I had very little intellectual development. I never thought of myself as a good student. I never thought of myself as an intellectual. Frankly, it took me embarrassingly long to become interested in “free market” ideas. I just knew that what the Republicans and the Democrats were saying rarely seemed like coherent philosophies. 

However, I do not apologize for my years as a consumer reporter; I think capitalism works best when there is a free press that is loud about pointing out companies that sell inferior products and about leading people to good products. But I went in with the assumption that there were problems that regulators had to solve. Watching them work, I saw that they rarely solved problems and they cost the rest of us money. I also saw that the producers suffered, having to jump through hoops, while the real sleazy businessmen kept getting away with selling breast enlargers, or “burn-fat-while-you-sleep” pills, and that they would hold off regulators with their own sleazy lawyers and, later, change the name of the product and move to a different state.

Scott Holleran: It seems you recognized the pitfalls of regulation and integrated that knowledge into an understanding of economics. How?

John Stossel: Maybe I saw it more than other reporters because I was a consumer reporter – it was my full-time beat. I would be the one to hear from consumers when they went to regulators or to lawyers. I was becoming frustrated. I thought: What can be done to help consumers? Until I’d read Reason magazine, I just hadn’t found an intellectual structure to explain how markets could protect us; it really was Reason that woke me up.

Scott Holleran: Recently, the pace of television news seems quicker than the days of Harry Reasoner and Walter Cronkite. What are your thoughts on this trend in broadcast news?

John Stossel: It’s hard to generalize. Stories are shorter but our attention spans are shorter, too. I don’t know that it necessarily makes the news more or less distorted. Children grew up watching Sesame Street and, as adults, they want faster explanations. Viewers have a remote control with which they can surf 50 stations, so you really don’t have as much time to make your point. You’re not allowed to bore people. If you bore the viewer for more than a second or two – they’re gone. Is that dangerous? I don’t know.

Scott Holleran: What are the best means for viewers to obtain information in today’s culture?

John Stossel: I wish people would read more. Reading more exposes you to more sides of the story – that’s how I do it. That’s all I can suggest.

Scott Holleran: Do you think there’s any value in quasi-news tabloid TV programs?

John Stossel: Well, it depends on what you call tabloid TV. I think the market will sort this out like everything else. If people don’t trust the information, they’ll get tired of it. It’s good that we have chocolate, strawberry and vanilla – there’s something for everybody. We’ve had that in print media. There’s so much criticism of programs like Oprah as tabloid TV and I disagree with that. I feel that people bleeding openly about being abused by their parents or screwing up their love lives helps people learn about those people and talk about those people – and maybe not mess up their own lives.

Scott Holleran: The success of tabloid TV programs and other types of programming has lead the president [Bill Clinton] and some in Congress to propose regulation of TV programming. How do you think the television industry should respond to government’s encouragement of voluntary TV ratings?

John Stossel: I don’t think it will work. There are too many variables. Maybe it attracts kids to violence or sexually rated programs. I don’t feel strongly about it, but, I don’t like this government pressure, with people saying, “you’ll lose your broadcasting license unless you do it our way,” forcing a one-size-fits-all solution. On the other hand, there’s a lot of nasty stuff on TV that parents ought to keep their kids from seeing. I’m just not sure guidelines will help. I wish parents would just be vigilant.

Scott Holleran: What are your thoughts on NBC’s refusal to use the government’s TV ratings system?

John Stossel: I think it’s very gutsy.

Scott Holleran: Some professors of journalism, producers and editors say that every reporter has an automatic bias and that, therefore, objectivity is impossible in journalism. Do you agree?

John Stossel: It depends on how you define objective. I think objective means open minded. All reporters should strive for that. I think it is a conceit of the dominant media that they maintain they are objective when clearly their life experiences … color their judgment. Lately, in my stories and in my specials, I state that I have a point of view and I make it clear to the audience, and many people would describe that as being at variance from traditional objective reporting. But I would describe what many of those people call traditional objective reporting as wildly biased, so, it’s hard to know where we draw the line. Reporters should strive to be open minded, and, in that sense, objectivity is possible in reporting.

Scott Holleran: Are most journalists objective?

John Stossel: I think that they try to be.

Published May 23, 1998 in the Los Angeles Daily News