Excerpt: John Stossel's 'Give Me a Break'
'20/20' Co-Anchor Challenges the Status Quo in New Book
John Stossel, consumer reporter and 20/20 co-anchor, takes on regulators, lawyers, and politicians in a new book, "Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media." Below is an excerpt from Chapter One.
What Happened to Stossel? Journalism without a moral position is impossible. — Marguerite Duras
I was once a heroic consumer reporter; now I'm a threat to journalism.
As a consumer reporter, I exposed con men and thieves, confronting them with hidden camera footage that unmasked their lies, put some out of business, and helped send the worst of them to jail. The Dallas Morning News called me the "bravest and best of television's consumer reporters." Marvin Kitman of Newsday said I was "the man who makes 'em squirm," whose "investigations of the unjust and wicked … are models." Jonathan Mandell of the New York Daily News quoted a WCBS official who "proudly" said, "No one's offended more people than John Stossel."
Ah, "proudly." Those were the days. My colleagues liked it when I offended people. They called my reporting "hard-hitting," "a public service." I won 18 Emmys, and lots of other journalism awards. One year I got so many Emmys, another winner thanked me in his acceptance speech "for not having an entry in this category."
Then I did a terrible thing. Instead of just applying my skepticism to business, I applied it to government and "public interest" groups. This apparently violated a religious tenet of journalism. Suddenly I was no longer "objective."
Ralph Nader said I "used to be on the cutting edge," but had become "lazy and dishonest." According to Brill's Content, "Nader was a fan during Stossel's consumer advocate days," but "now talks about him as if he'd been afflicted with a mysterious disease."
These days, I rarely get awards from my peers. Some of my ABC colleagues look away when they see me in the halls. Web sites call my reporting "hurtful, biased, absurd." "What happened to Stossel?" they ask. CNN invited me to be a guest on a journalism show; when I arrived at the studio, I discovered they'd titled it "Objectivity and Journalism — Does John Stossel Practice Either?" People now e-mail me, calling me "a corporate whore" and a "sellout."
How did I get from there to here? This book is the story of my professional and intellectual journey.
The Making of a Contrarian
I never planned to be a reporter. In college, when I tried to write a story for the school newspaper, the editors sneered and said, "Leave the writing to us." I was never much of a public speaker. I'm kind of shy, and I stutter. It all happened because I wanted to postpone graduate school.
I'd been accepted by the University of Chicago's School of Hospital Management, but I was sick of school. I was an indifferent student. I daydreamed through half my classes at Princeton, and applied to grad school only because I was ambitious, and grad school seemed like the right path for a 21-year-old who wanted to get ahead. Hospital management sounded like a useful and interesting career. But before I headed for the University of Chicago, I took a job. I thought the stress of a real job would make me appreciate school, and then I would embrace graduate studies with renewed vigor.
Every time a company sent a recruiter to Princeton, I volunteered for an interview. I got a dozen job offers and took the one that offered me a free flight that would take me the farthest: Seattle Magazine. They said they'd teach me how to sell advertising or do bookkeeping. But by the time I graduated, Seattle Magazine had gone out of business. I was lucky, though: Ancil Payne, the boss of the parent company, King Broadcasting, called me to say, "We have a job available at KGW, our Portland, Oregon, TV station. Want to try that?"
I said yes, although I had never thought about a career in TV news. I'd never even watched much of it. I had no journalism training. In Portland I started as a newsroom gofer and worked my way up. I researched stories for others. Then, after studying how the anchormen spoke, I started writing stories for them. A few years later the news director told me to go on the air and read what I wrote. I reluctantly tried, but I was horrible at it — nervous, awkward, scared. When I watched a tape of my performance, I was embarrassed. But I persisted because I had to succeed. When I was growing up, my mother had repeatedly warned me that if I didn't study hard, get into a good college, and succeed in a profession, I would "freeze in the dark." I believed it.
I was also determined to keep pace with my brother Tom, who was the superstar of the family. While I partied and played poker, he studied hard, got top grades, and went to Harvard Medical School. Since I knew there was no way I could compete with Tom in his field, I tried to become a success in the profession I'd stumbled into.
In retrospect, I see that it probably helped me that I had taken no journalism courses. Television news was still inventing itself then, and I was open to new ideas. I learned through fear. My fear of failure made me desperate to do the job well, to try to figure out what people really needed to know and how I could say it in a way that would work well on TV.
From Give Me a Break. © 2004 by John Stossel. All rights reserved. Harpercollins Publishers.
Copyright © 2006 ABC News Internet Ventures