Give Me a Break, a Book Review

I recently finished reading ABC journalist John Stossel’s book Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media….

Excellent book, highly recommended.

The book runs just short of 300 very fast pages chronicling Stossel’s career to this point (it was published just before Barbara Walters announced that she would no longer be co-anchor of ABC’s 20-20 with Stossel). It begins with a short retrospective of his career. Opening chapter excerpt:

“I was once a heroic consumer reporter; now I’m a threat to journalism.

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.”

These days, I rarely get awards from my peers. Some of my ABC colleagues look away when they see me in the halls.

What follows is a description of the journey from rewarded “advocate” to shunned “gadfly.”

I found it interesting that Stossel repeats the “journalism is a religion” meme I first ran into in a Jay Rosen editorial. Stossel makes it explicit in the title to his book that there is such a thing as “liberal journalism,” yet he himself is not part of that orthodoxy. He explains this simply:

I never planned to be a reporter.

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?”

And he did, starting as “gofer,” then researcher, newswriter, and finally reporter. Stossel says:

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.

But what Stossel doesn’t say, outright, is that his lack of ordination in the Church of Journalism left his mind open to question what he saw. The first inklings of this willingness to question came shortly after he moved from Portland to the “big leagues”; WCBS in New York, where he met up with what I call the “union mentality” and was exposed to regimented reporting:

We’d show up for work at 10 A.M., and the assignment editor would tell us what we’d cover that day. I sometimes suggested we ought to report on someting else, and he’d tell me, “Do what you’re told.” Each correspondent would then grab one of the three-man union crews and drive to the scene of the fire, murder, news conference, or whatever the assignment editor wanted us to cover. We’d arrive like a lumbering army. It was remarkable how much time a cameraman, a soundman, and an electrician could take just getting out of the car. Every move was deliberate.

They had no reason to hurry because no one ever got fired. There was no reason to work harder because union rules demanded everyone be paid the same. Many union workers were masters not at just killing time, but at killing innovation. “Can’t be done.” “Against the rules.” “Equipment won’t do that.” It stunned me that so many of them could be indifferent to what I thought was important work.

More on “regimented reporting” and how Stossel avoided it:

At WCBS I was steadily growing more frustrated with following the assignment editor’s vision of what was “news.” Perhaps because of my stuttering, I’d always avoided covering what the pack covered. I didn’t think I could succeed if I had to compete by shouting out questions at news conferences, so I seldom vounteered to report the day’s “big news.” That turned out to have an unexpected benefit, It helped me realize that the most important news happens slowly. The assignment editor aw WCBS was focused only on that day’s events: government pronouncements, election results, grisly fires and murders. But the world’s real life-changing developments were things like the women’s movement, the shrinking of computers, the invention of the birth control pill. They mattered more but happened quietly, well off the radar screen of my assignment editor, because they weren’t in that day’s news releases, the AP daybook, or that morning’s paper. (That would be The New York Times in this case.) I decided I wanted to search out those trends and cover health and science news, the environment, sociology, psychology. The assigmnent editor wasn’t interested.

One day, with great trepidation, I went over his head. I brought Ed Joyce a list of the stories the assignment editor had rejected. I said I thought my ideas were better. I feared Joyce would fire me or tell me to shut up and do what the assignment editor had told me. Instead he said, “You’re right – yours are better. Do them.”

And Stossel was unleashed upon unsuspecting hucksters, cheats, scam artists and the liberal media.

What follows are 14 chapters on the evil and idiocy practiced upon the American public by those Stossel exposes. In Chapter 2, Confrontations, Stossel recounts how he started doing “In-your-face” consumer reporting, and his shock at the reactions of those he exposed – blasé. Generally “stonewalling, lying, and weird politeness.” It’s an excellent look, psychologically, at the people who make their living out of cheating others. Especially the concluding paragraph:

Donald Trump was offended when I called him a bully for trying to force an old lady out of her house to make more room for his Atlantic City casino. After the interview, the producer stayed behind to pack up our equipment. Trump came back into the room, puffed himself up, and started blustering, “Nobody talks to me that way!”

Well, someone should.

Amen.

Chapter 3 recounts Stossel’s continuation down his path to journalistic heresy, his “Confusion” over the fact that his consumer-advocacy work wasn’t having any results, or at least not positive ones.

It was satisfying to confront the bad guys, but it wasn’t enough. I’d expose them, and a month later, they’d be back at it. I wanted the government to do something to stop the crooks, to compensate the victims. After I spent time with the victims listening to their sad stories, I was angry. I wanted someone to help those people. What was the purpose of government if it couldn’t protect them?

But that’s not what happened:

Occasionally the government did act, but its actions rarely worked out well.

Every regulation seemed to have an unintended consequence. Taxpayers’ dollars wound up in the pockets of the rich instead of the poor. Well-meaning regulation designed to protect consumers often hurt them by narrowing their choice.

As an idealist fresh out of college, no wonder he was confused. The chapter goes on with example after example of how government regulation of business hurt innovation and profited established business: Hair salons, milk producers, unions, public transportation, the FDA. It’s angering to read, but the honesty is refreshing.

Chapter four is aptly entitled “Epiphany” and is a scourging of regulators and regulating:

I had moved from seeing regulation as a good thing to seeing it as a necessary evil. More years of reporting led me to conclude that much of it is also unnecessary evil. We don’t need a million rules because free markets police themselves.

And here we see in print Stossel’s small “L” libertarianism really take off.

By contrast, government almost never polices itself. When government agencies lose money, or fail at their missions, they ask Congress for more money. They usually get it, citing their failure to achieve their goals as proof they need more funds.

Followed by example after example.

I’m not going to go through all the chapters, but I will comment on the one that is one central theme of the book: the need for tort reform. The chapter entitled “The Trouble with Lawyers” begins:

I don’t hate lawyers. We need lawyers.

We need them to preserve the rule of law. We need them to defend if others cheat us, steal from us, trample on our rights. However, we also need nuclear missles – to keep other nations from trampling on our rights. We try not to use them, because they harm innocent people.

We should treat lawyers the same way. Lawsuits are necessary, but evil.

And he goes on to make a very cogent case. His conclusion? We need a “loser pays” system of tort. I recently read John Grisham’s The King of Torts which I found to be a fascinating and repelling look into the business of “personal injury law.” Stossel’s right – it’s got to change.

Everyone needs to read this book, right and left alike. The right for ammunition, the left for reflection on their failures. I would have preferred some more in-depth information on each of the examples Stossel relates, but then the book would have been a thousand pages at least. I imagine his research archives must be a gold mine. Stossel makes an outstanding argument for small “L” libertarianism, and concludes with this:

My epiphany was seeing that we don’t need experts to “run the country.” We need limited government, a referee that keeps the peace. But that’s all. Then free minds and free markets will make good things happen.

Sounds remarkably like the system our Founders envisioned, doesn’t it?

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