On 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.
After 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 of re-airing the segment on July 7th. Stossel provided additional commentary at 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 follow.
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 spectrum.
Free-market.net 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.
In an interview with Reason magazine, entitled "Risky Journalism: ABC's John Stossel bucks a fearful establishment," he chronicled this evolution.
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.
August 15, 2000