Commentary

Targeting a Journalistic Pariah

This essay was distributed nationally by Copley News Service.
Despite an abundance of wives and concubines, ancient Israel’s King David bedded another man’s wife. The prophet Nathan condemned David with the parable of a rich man who ignored his own flocks to seize a poor man’s lamb (2 Samuel 12:1-4). So it is with left-wing activists who lobby for the firing of ABC’s John Stossel.

There is at least one truth in America: the media is liberal. From network anchors to talk-show personalities to correspondents, the vast majority lean left. Some, such as the egregious Bryant Gumbel, make little effort to disguise their bias.

Perhaps, the most notable exception is John Stossel, who reports for ABC’s “20/20” and develops his own specials. Years ago, Stossel started out as a reliably liberal consumer affairs reporter for a local TV station. But he has since metamorphosed into a classical liberal who actually believes in liberty.

As such, he has become a scourge of lazy statist thinking. Among his targets: crackpot lawsuits, junk science, environmental scaremongering, whiny victimology, thuggish paternalism, corporate welfare, special interest regulation and assaults on free speech. His new “Is American Number One?” makes an unabashed case for the virtues of freedom.

Although there are a few other dissident television voices, particularly on Fox, none have been as effective as Stossel in challenging left-wing orthodoxy. Which naturally horrifies liberal interests used to sympathetic media treatment.

Never mind that the left shapes the vast bulk of what emerges from the idiot box every day. Liberal ideologues, like King David, covet the one position that they do not currently control.

Stossel’s foes have created a Web site to attack him. Now they are demanding his head because of an error on his recent organic foods show.

The mistake was real, though not serious, and Stossel apologized to a nationwide audience. That has not stopped the lynch mob, however. Accuracy has never been of much use to environmentalists, leftists, or trial lawyers, but all now suggest that ABC should engage in journalistic cleansing in the name of truth.

Stossel’s tests found that there is more bacterial contamination of organic than conventional foods. He incorrectly reported that a similar ABC review found no pesticide residue on either form of produce. Apparently, a producer was confused by the different tests performed.

Stossel’s error did not actually mislead. Consumer Reports notes that pesticide traces are found in organic as well as conventional produce. Tests by the Department of Agriculture have found that two-thirds of foods and the vast majority of everything but fruit don’t even have detectable pesticide residues.

Even where vestiges remain, the levels are too low to harm anyone. The Washington Post reported last year that not only do organic foods provide no more nutrients than conventional produce, but the pesticide risks of both are nil.

In short, Stossel correctly demonstrated that yet another sainted liberal cause, organic foods, was based on myth. Eat organic produce if doing so gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling. Don’t do so because you believe it will improve your health.

What makes the current flap so obviously political is that Stossel’s most virulent accuser, the Environmental Working Group, routinely twists the truth. Science analyst Steven Milloy, in his FOXNews.com “Junk Science” column, points out that the organization “is well known for spreading fear of pesticides through misinformation.”

EWG spokesmen have made wild statements warning that a million American kids were at risk of consuming unsafe levels of pesticides, and claiming that even one bite of some fruit could cause “dizziness, nausea and blurred vision.”

Government officials and toxicologists have exposed the charges as false, but, observes Milloy, EWG has neglected to admit, let alone apologize for, the errors.

Unfortunately, many on the left cannot imagine a good-faith disagreement, so they cast Stossel as a tool of corporate interests. Never mind that organic farming is big business: the Organic Trade Association is among the mob.

Indeed, what Stossel defends are markets, not companies. For instance, he criticizes licensing regulations eagerly backed by the usual business suspects because they impair markets, and thus impoverish consumers. He opposes corporate welfare, because he sees no justification for allowing firms to loot taxpayers.

The fact that Stossel does great work doesn’t excuse him from the duty of being accurate, of course, but he knows that. As he said in his apology: “All we have in this business is our credibility your trust that we get it right. I will make every effort to see that it never happens again.” That’s more than many on the left ever say.

Conspiracy theories usually offer simplistic explanations for complex phenomena. But the attack on Stossel suggests that some conspiracies do exist. Like one devoted to ridding television of its most effective dissident voice.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.