John Stossel, 63, has won 19 Emmy awards for his consumer reporting and investigative journalism. Now that he criticizes big government more than big business, espouses libertarianism, and-horror of horrors-works for FOX rather than ABC, those awards are no longer coming.
When you were an undergraduate at Princeton, what did you dream about? I was just trying to find a girlfriend, to succeed at sports, and to make money. My mother had told me if I didn't work hard I would freeze in the dark. That was my fear.
After college you took the job offer that allowed you to get the farthest away? Business office of Seattle Magazine: the longest free trip. I thought, "I'll take that, and see the Pacific Northwest!" But by the time I got to Seattle, Seattle Magazine had folded and they asked me if I wanted to try working as a researcher in the television newsroom in Portland, Ore. I said, "Sure." I had never written anything; my worst grades were in English.
And then you had to write professionally . . . As a researcher, and eventually writing things for the anchors. In a way, it's helpful to not know what you want to do, and just learn through fear. I wanted to succeed, so I stayed on the balls of my feet and tried to learn as much as I could.
You were told you weren't a writer, but also as a child you were a stutterer. Yes, I still am a stutterer, though it's obviously largely under control. As a child I struggled with the B and D sounds, and as a consumer reporter, that meant I couldn't say "better" or "different" on television. I could edit the stutters out, but it was very scary for me. I would wake up scared every morning. I came to New York after a number of years, and I had a job with Channel 2. I would do a consumer report and at the end there's a live chat with the anchorman. I would wake up every morning dreading those 15 seconds of live, because I was so afraid that I would humiliate myself and be fired.
How did you improve? I eventually went to a clinic where they re-taught us how to speak. They slowed us down to about 2 seconds per syllable: We were like cows mooing at each other. It was boring therapy, but I was really motivated because I had this cool career in television. It paid well, I was doing things I thought were socially useful, I was meeting girls-it was wonderful. I didn't want to give it up, but I thought I had to because it was too terrifying. So I did this therapy, and because I was motivated I really learned.
In your career, were you at first the crusading consumer advocate, exposing nefarious activities of businesses messing around with the little guy? That's a fair characterization. I did that because I was a stutterer, and the idea of covering what everyone else was covering terrified me, that I would be at the press conference and they would be saying, "Mr. President! Mr. President!" and I wouldn't be able to get it out. I wanted to cover something where I didn't face that kind of competition. News at the time was generally politics, crime, and the weather. That's what we thought of as news.
At first you saw government as having a big role in protecting consumers. I was cheering on the regulators because I saw consumers get ripped off. One example: We would take a TV to a bunch of repair shops. We arranged it with a community college so it had a loose tube. All you had to do was put the tube back in and that would fix the TV. Most repair shops just did that, no charge, but some said they had to take it and repair it. We came back for it and they would charge us $200. I asked them, "Would you ever charge someone for a repair you didn't have to make, or say something was wrong when it wasn't?" They said, "Oh, no, we would never do that." And I got to say, "Oh yeah? Well watch this!" and I played the video.
Great revenge television. We did a 5-part series on that. I would say, "The government should step in and stop this! People are getting hurt!" Then politicians would call and say, "That was great. We're going to do something about it." And young John Stossel was very flattered that people were paying attention to him. Many reporters foolishly measure themselves by how many laws they get passed, when we really should measure ourselves by how many laws we get repealed. But I hadn't learned that yet. So I was excited: They were going to create a Department of Consumer Affairs, and I had been a part of that happening. But I didn't realize that they were using me because they wanted to get their faces on TV, because that would help them get elected.
Did you see improvement? Five years later I was still on the beat; we would do the same tests and get the same results. So we started wondering, what was the Department of Consumer Affairs doing? We checked it out, and it was licensing people. That sounds good, intuitively. We license dogs and we license drivers, and it sounds like it's going to make life safer. But it doesn't: It just adds bureaucracy. It made everything cost more. Now every business had to hire a lawyer just to understand the forms and go down there and get a license. If you're an immigrant trying to open a new repair shop that would be cheap and serve people in poor neighborhoods, maybe now you couldn't because it was too expensive. Or, maybe you had to go into the black market and operate without a license, and risk being busted by the police-or extorted by the police, because once you're underground the authorities can use you more easily.
Then you started to do stories criticizing regulation? I talked about how when the government got rid of the Interstate Commerce Commission, suddenly they got rid of these idiot rules that would cause trucks that went from the farm with a load of carrots to have to go back to the farm empty, because they had to get permission from the bureaucracy to carry furniture back to the farm. Now they were going full both ways and we saved billions of dollars. And deregulation of natural gas prices: Politicians said the prices would go through the roof if we didn't limit prices, and they did go up at first, but then there was much more production, and the prices went way down.
So your street-level experience suggested that if a company is doing something wrong, competition will eventually take care of it, but government, operating without competition, can stultify the whole process? And keep it bad forever, like the public K-12 education system. I could always find scams when I was a local reporter: There was the New York scam, the Portland, Ore., scam. But when I got to Good Morning America and 20/20, we couldn't find many. That's because of competition: With free competition, the cheaters don't get very big. The way to get really rich in America is to give your customers something they want, something good. If you cheat people, word gets out. You can make money for a while, but eventually it peters out.
To hear Marvin Olasky's complete interview with John Stossel, click here.