Stossel's Sins of Omission

Someone less charitable than I might suggest that the title of John Stossel's new tome, "Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity" is accurate in ways he never intended.

In truth, there are some things in "Myths" that the 20/20 anchorman addresses rather honestly -- usually the topics tossed in to bolster his libertarian pretensions. Stossel's opening salvo on debunking "pseudo-experts," for instance, takes to task the experts who claim they can cure homosexuality, later noting that "if a man wants to have sex with another man, that should be his choice." Good.

Yet there are also many not-so-good things about the book.

Stossel breaks down "Myths" into 12 chapters on subjects ranging from "Clueless Media" to "The Pursuit of Happiness," but his targets are less varied. Again and again, he goes after the press, government and "experts," whether they be litigators or environmental scientists, harboring a special antipathy for anyone he perceives as interfering with the market. In the end, Stossel reveals himself not to be a libertarian so much as the preeminent champion, defender and protector of capitalism. If he doesn't get exercised about homosexuality, it's probably because he sees no market value for homophobia.

Of course, a man who's made his career on being a "consumer advocate" finds himself in a bit of a conundrum as he preaches the infallibility of capitalism, as the latter requires a nearly unyielding defense of corporations. To reconcile the two, Stossel apparently trusts his audience to be wholly daft or to be such plodding readers that by the time they reach page 161:

MYTH: Businesses rip us off.

TRUTH: Most don't.

they have forgotten what he said on page 141:

"[B]ig government hurts consumers much more than business. However That doesn't mean that businesses aren't ripping us off. They are, and they'll do it every chance they get." (Emphasis mine.)

Considering his disdain of injury lawsuits, he really ought to consider giving away a free whiplash collar with every purchase of his book.

The existence of corrupt, unethical or scammy businesses, however, is, in Stossel's world, self-correcting -- because competition takes care of them. "Competition, media coverage, and (occasionally) legal prosecution limit their opportunities to scam consumers," he assures us, after his chapters on "Clueless Media" and "Monster Government." And though he casually mentions that, sure, there are some corporations who "rip us off" -- "Enron, WorldCom and Tyco became famous for it" -- he fails wholly to address the troublesome dilemma of monopolies. On the very next page, after mentioning those three problematic corporate giants, he launches into:

MYTH: Government must make rules to protect us from business.

TRUTH: Competition protects us, if government gets out of the way.

Nary a mention in the entire section of relaxed government regulation having led to the criminal enterprises perpetrated upon the American people by corporate monopolies such as the ones he provides as examples. Not a passing suggestion that allowing monopolies to flourish decreases the possibility of competition solving the problem of unethical business practices. Instead, it's right on to defending Big Pharma and denouncing the idea of a higher minimum wage.

In fact, the only time Stossel makes much of a fuss about monopolies at all is when he embarks on debunking all the myths, lies and downright stupidity surrounding our "Stupid Schools." It is here he grouses endlessly about the "government monopoly" on educating children. "Government monopolies," he says, "routinely fail their customers."

As proof, Stossel reproduces much of what originally aired in January as a report on 20/20 filed under the name Stupid in America, which argued that U.S. students were in deep trouble by comparing test results between U.S. and Belgian students. At the time, Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler thoroughly debunked the report, pointing out such glaring flaws as Stossel's failure to identify what test was given and how comparability between the two sets of students was established -- if it was at all.

If Stossel read Somerby's critique (or one of the many others across the blogosphere) of his "Stupid" segment, he doesn't show it. None of the concerns raised directly following the airing of the same material earlier this year were addressed in the book. The omissions of the test name and any description of the Belgian students still stand, and his assertion that our government monopoly on public education fails its students rests solely on some students from "an above-average school in New Jersey" scoring 47 percent on an unnamed test on which unidentified Belgian students scored 76 percent.

This isn't the only piece of "Myths" that originated with 20/20. In his introduction, Stossel notes, "This book is really the work of many of us at 20/20" -- nor is 20/20 the only place in which one can find glimpses of "Myths." His latest syndicated column, which can be found at Real Clear Politics and Townhall, is called "Religious Fanatics Terrorize American Farmers" -- and is nearly indistinguishable from pages 101-103 of "Myths," in which he contends that environmentalists are actually not scientists and activists but "religious fundamentalists."

MYTH: Environmental regulators are dispassionate scientists.

TRUTH: Many are radical activists.

From there he goes on to explain that "years ago, ranchers and farmers told me that the government's environmental regulatory agencies had been taken over by religious fundamentalists (environmental fanatics) so hostile to the idea of private property that they'd use the endangered species law to drive just about every landowner off his land." In support of this assertion, Stossel quotes a transcript from an interview with a retired biologist named Jim Beers who worked for the Department of Fish and Wildlife for 30 years, in which Beers claims, "The agencies today are staffed with environmental radical activists," but he cites no ranchers or farmers.

I turned to the endnotes, which recommended I see the Aug. 2, 2002, story on20/20at ABC's website. There I found a similar lack of ranchers or farmers grousing about religious fundamentalists to Stossel; just the same Beers quote -- and nothing, from Beers or anyone else, calling environmentalists "religious fundamentalists." The incendiary designation seems to be a creation of Stossel's, for which he provides no explanation.

Also quoted in "Myths," to bolster the notion that these environmental radicals are seeking to "drive just about every landowner off his land," is Mike Paulson, therein described as a "property rights advocate," though I could uncover no mention of Paulson as a property rights advocate anywhere that was not in association with Stossel. The story on the ABC website gives some insight into why that may be. There he is described as "a local land rights activist," but by the time he made it into Stossel's book, he was bestowed with a title more worthy of such dramatic and unsupported pronouncements.

All of this is part of his recounting of a Washington State wildlife survey in which biologists were tasked with determining whether Candian lynx were present in the northern United States by collecting hair. During the survey, unauthorized samples of hair were submitted, which the biologists who submitted them dubiously claimed were to test the lab, prompting an investigation by the Government Accountability Office. Stossel quotes them as saying, "There was no procedure whereby the biologists who submitted samples would receive preliminary results, so that they could subsequently notify the laboratory of their unauthorized submissions." Damning indeed.

This is all the proof Stossel needs that religious fundamentalists have taken over the government's environmental regulatory agencies. The agencies' members were "cheating... caught with their hands in the cage." But here's the whole quote: "Further, the director of the laboratory told us that there was no procedure whereby the biologists who submitted samples would receive preliminary results, so that they could subsequently notify the laboratory of their unauthorized submissions." A difference of only nine words, but leaving out the fact that the laboratory director cooperated with the GAO investigation, clearly delineating procedure in a way that undermined the biologists' claims, is certainly more convenient to serve a thesis that contends environmental regulatory agencies are rife with religious fundamentalists, rather than just a few bad employees.

It is precisely this type of error that plagues "Myths." Little sins of omission, half-quotes and curiously absent qualifiers. Nothing is quite what Stossel would have his readers believe.

The back cover of "Myths" gushes: "Find out what's true and what's not in this thought-provoking follow-up to "Give Me a Break." And much like the book's title, this little marketing snippet has a rather unfortunate double-meaning. To those who would pick up the book to become, as Bill O'Reilly promises on the jacket, "smarter than your friends," the phrase likely reads as a selling point. To everyone else, it should be read as a plea to do your own research.

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