SILICON LOUNGE: War Over Stossel Rages on Web

ABC reporter John Stossel's corporate love affair is stirring up online enemies. The antigovernment kvetcher, who made waves this year when he reported on 20/20 that organic produce could be deadly, is the target of a strategic Internet campaign by the Environmental Working Group. The activist corps is using its site to keep the issue of Stossel's questionable reporting and business connections alive, long after the matter dropped off the print radar.

Stossel caused his own trouble, when he reported in February—based on a test that turned out to be nonexistent—that vegetables grown without pesticides "could kill you." This summer, Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook says, the organization ran computer analyses of pesticide testing on organic food, and what they found differed radically from Stossel’s so-called information. "[His report] didn't fit with any of the tens of thousands of laboratory results the government has published since 1993," Cook says.

After the segment ran again, on July 7, EWG organized "Give Us a Fake," its anti-Stossel Web effort, with postings to every relevant link, including an unedited transcript in which Stossel says ABC should "do more tests." After The New York Times picked up the story, Stossel issued a lukewarm apology—a victory for the activists, whose high-profile agitating helped nearly double traffic to EWG's site.

EWG scored an additional win, convincing ABC to strike the errant material about organic produce from all transcripts of the segment, including the transcript in the Lexis-Nexis database. However, EWG still links to the complete document, a move Cook says is appropriate, because his site provides needed "context."

"Give Us a Fake" also links to the site of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, which for two years has posted a Stossel advisory. It chronicles what it calls Stossel's "shoddy, one-sided propaganda," listing many examples of inaccuracies and one-sided sourcing. The site offers a response from "Stossel and some of his staff" that refutes the accusations: "As a reporter, Stossel reached his conclusions about the efficacy of markets not as a result of armchair philosophizing or gut instinct but as a result of years of accumulated evidence."

But although Stossel, who did not respond to a request for an interview, he cultivates an onscreen persona of measured neutrality, he has left an online trail that suggests bias. Three years ago, he told the libertarian magazine Reason that he wants to do more stories on free markets. "I am aware I have to intersperse them with stories about raising children, and Peeping Toms, and diseases of the week," he said, adding, "I think the issue of the day is how big government should be. . . . [T]hat's my main political issue."

Not surprisingly, free marketers have rallied online to Stossel's defense. The Competitive Enterprise Institute posted SaveJohnStossel.org, complete with an online petition telling ABC to keep him on. "[Stossel] is under attack and needs the support of his fans." And Free-market.net exhorts Stossel fans to "go on the offensive!"

Cook of EWG expected a counterattack. "There's fear among what we call 'the institutes' about the possible loss of their franchise in the mainstream media," he says. "[Stossel] is their only visible, unaccountable guy."

Stossel may be accountable to one group, though: the ultraconservative Palmer R. Chitester Fund, a Pennsylvania nonprofit that distributes the journalist's ABC reports to public and private schools around the country. This "Stossel in the Classroom" series is packaged and sold by the PRC, which is run by Bob Chitester, a partner with Milton and Rose Friedman in the free-market foundation Free to Choose Enterprise. The videos come with study guides that draw on material from such far-right groups as the Heritage Foundation and the Young Americas Foundation. "We have not yet heard from a school and/or a teacher who has blatantly refused/ rejected the materials," writes PRC vice president and Stossel in the Classroom webmaster Rick Platt online, "although some were a little miffed [when Stossel] took a look at public education."

Apart from a Salon story last spring, the study series hasn't drawn much media attention, either.

But Stossel's habit of speaking to and for pro-industry groups for fees that range upwards of $20,000 has drawn some criticism. In October, he is slated to address the Western Food Industry Conference on the topic of "Pandering to Fear: The Media's Crisis Mentality." That's the same talk he gave to the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association in July. According to Supermarket News, in the previous speech Stossel blamed the media for feeding irrational fear. He told the industrialists, "I see you as timid and defenseless, and totally rolled in the public debate." He said companies can be helped by a photogenic CEO who could passionately defend industry.

The Village Voice reported a year ago that Stossel had narrated a "Consumer Privacy Training Video" sold by the American Banking Association for $35 each.

Back then, ABC defended Stossel, saying he donates his fees to charity. Yes, but which charities? In February 1999, he defended a $9500 fee for speaking to a conference about questionable sales practices. He told The Indianapolis Star that most of the fee was going to the "Palmer R. Chitester charity"—the same free-market group that is producing his classroom series. (The PRC Fund did not respond to a request for comment.)

"This is really low stuff," corporate-media watcher Robert W. McChesney says of Stossel's political connections. "It's dubious in our current system for any journalist to be involved in something explicitly partisan. It raises questions about disclosure on the one hand, and fairness to the other position."

EWG's Cook is more pointed: "ABC says, 'Stossel is giving to charity so that meets our guidelines.' I don't think they're poring over sacred journalistic ethical texts to reach these conclusions."

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