February 4th, the ABC television newsmagazine 20/20 presented
a report by the iconoclastic and anti-PC reporter John Stossel.
He pointed to the increased health risks that might accompany organic
food. Stossel's report flew in the face of the accepted PC wisdom
that organic food is safer because it is cultivated without pesticides.
Environmentalists were outraged by the broadcast that included the
statement: "Our tests [ABC's] surprisingly found no pesticide
residue on the conventional samples or the organic." This statement
was Stossel's mistake and it could be his undoing if ABC caves to
PC politics. It gave a Washington-based environmental watchdog –
the left Environmental Working Group (EWG) – an opening to
conduct a media circus through which to call for Stossel's dismissal.
According to the EWG – who seem to be correct – scientists
working for ABC tested produce for bacteria, not pesticides. Although
poultry were tested for pesticides, the organic chickens had passed
with a clean bill while the regular chickens evidenced residue.
This means that Stossel's claim "Our tests surprisingly found
no pesticide residue [on produce]…" is inaccurate. He should
have said "bacteria residue." In the Brave New World of
news reporting, where NBC jerry-rigs gas tanks to explode as part
of an ‘impartial' exposé, such a slip may seem inconsequential.
No individual was libeled. No company or brand name was slanderously
mentioned. No deaths or property damage ensured. The mistake could
have easily resulted from sloppy copywriting or research on the
part of ABC staff. It was the sort of inevitable mistake that will
happen in a long and fast-paced career that depends on the input
of many people. Moreover, ABC publicly apologized and Stossel offered
an on-air retraction.
So why is there a political hue and cry to fire the man and destroy
his career? Why is there an active,
daily updated anti-Stossel site calling for the same?
There are two explanations. One is the proximate cause; the other
is the underlying reason.
the February 4th show, the enraged EWG repeatedly contacted
Stossel, the segment's producer David Fitzpatrick and ABC News president
David Westin. Fitzpatrick confirmed that 20/20 had tested produce
for pesticides. He indicated that the test results had been given
to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). The OTA, however, had received
no such results. Again, there was probably some confusion between
testing for bacteria, not pesticides. The other explanation is that
veteran television men Stossel and Fitzpatrick risked their hard
won careers in order to fabricate data and, then, pointed their
critics directly to the fabrications. This is not plausible.
The controversy would have died had ABC not made the crucial error
the segment on July 7th. Stossel provided additional
the end of the re-airing in which he stated, "It's logical
to worry about pesticide residues, but in our tests we found none
on either organic or regular produce." The EWG immediately
called for his dismissal for fabricating test results and for re-broadcasting
them in an attempt to destroy an entire industry – organic
foods. The Group produced a 16-page investigation of Stossel that
confirmed there had been no pesticide testing on produce. Words
like ‘error' were no longer used. They were replaced by words like
‘lies.' The accusations drowned out ABC's explanation that Stossel
had relied upon inaccurate information from a staff member: namely,
a producer assumed incorrectly that the test conducted on chicken
had included produce.
News of Stossel's subsequent on-air apology began to circulate long
before the actual event. USA Today reported, "Stossel has been
ordered to apologize on Friday's 20/20 – a correction that may run
several minutes. In network news, that's extraordinary, because
most corrections run for only a matter of seconds." The AP
wire added, "The network [ABC] wouldn't say whether Stossel
or any 20/20 staffers would be disciplined." This speculation
about discipline occurred even though Stossel had already been reprimanded
in a letter and Fitzpatrick had been suspended for a month without
pay. Stossel escaped suspension himself because he had forwarded
mail disputing the segment's accuracy onto Fitzpatrick for investigation.
Nevertheless, ABC has indicated that more disciplinary actions may
Their concern is understandable. Editorials critical of Stossel
seem to be everywhere, including the New York Times. And the ABC
online Bulletin Board is bursting at the seams with debate between
those who demand Stossel's firing and his defenders. As EWG leads
a leftist campaign to destroy Stossel's career, a similar effort
to preserve it is being waged at the other end of the political
proclaims, "Send an e-mail of support via the ABC
feedback system. Be sure to select ‘John Stossel Reporting'
from the topic list." ABC is clearly waiting to see the direction
from which the wind is blowing, and how strongly.
Why is the controversy so intense? To answer, it is necessary to
consider the underlying reason for the attack. In an interview,
the Internet newspaper giant WorldNetDaily
has called the news correspondent "a propagandist for liberty."
The interviewer Geoff Metcalfe defined ‘propaganda' as "the
spreading of ideas,
information, or rumor, for the purpose of helping or injuring an
institution, a cause or a person." By that definition, Stossel
admitted to being a propagandist. "I'm trying to injure poverty
and help liberty," he explained. Propagandist or not, Stossel
is no lightweight. He has 19 Emmys to his credit, holds both a George
Polk and a George Foster Peabody Award, and has been repeatedly
recognized for excellence by the National Press Club.
He has won both a wide following and a loyal opposition due to his
contrarian attacks on governmental regulation and PC propaganda.
His reports are critical of the hysteria surrounding dioxins and
asbestos, he has presented the case for decriminalizing prostitution,
he questions the efficacy of government spending, he debunks so-called
safety risks. And his special reports are consistently in the top
20-viewed programs when first aired. To make Stossel even more of
a PC nightmare, he is a defector from the other side. Stossel began
his news career as a consumer advocate, much lauded by the likes
of Ralph Nader. Nader now considers Stossel to be the most "dishonest"
reporter in America because his investigative experiences led him
to reverse his stand. He began to defend businesses against the
ravages of government.
an interview with Reason magazine, entitled "Risky Journalism:
ABC's John Stossel bucks a fearful establishment," he chronicled
He also discussed a story he regretted from his Naderite days. It
concerned the health scare that revolved around the pesticide and
carcinogenic daminozide that was found on the skins of apples. In
a situation that parallels the current organic food controversy,
Stossel's evidence for alarm over daminozide was questionable. He
explained to Reason, "The EPA had just made an announcement.
I think I was less hysterical than others, but I basically said
the EPA said this chemical, daminozide, which is used to keep the
apples fresh longer, has been shown to cause cancer in rats – and
just saying that will terrify some people. I wish I had the knowledge
at the time to say the new testing mechanisms are finding possible
carcinogens in most anything these days…"
Oddly enough, no one called for Stossel's reprimand or dismissal
due to an erroneous report that vilified business and furthered
environmentalists' causes. Only since Stossel has been critiquing
the agenda of his former allies has he become "dishonest,"
"dangerous" and a man to be destroyed.