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Give Me a Break
A lone voice in the primetime wilderness
By Steven Martinovich
It's hard to believe that when John Stossel joined ABC's 20/20 in 1981 he was widely admired by his peers. A pioneering member of the crusading consumer reporter fraternity, Stossel's exposés of scam artists and corporate crooks earned him a shelf full of Emmy Awards and millions of viewers. Along the way, however, his reporting led him to question many of his deeply held assumptions resulting in his transformation into a crusader for the free market.
Stossel's Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media... explores the path he took during his celebrated career that landed him a reputation as a traitor to his profession. Coming into journalism almost by accident, Stossel relates how his stuttering early in his career forced him to take assignments that concentrated on investigative reporting. He eventually landed at WCBS in New York where his growing popularity brought him to the attention of Roone Arledge at ABC.
Stossel used this prominent stage to shine a light on con artists preying on consumers with scams of every conceivable type. Armed with his trademark ambush interview, Stossel harried flimflammers and ostensibly respectable businesspeople alike. His success was such that government often acted upon his investigations and launched probes of their own or introduced regulations.
Most investigative reporters would be pleased to have this impact but Stossel gradually began to be troubled by the effects of his work. After an investigation lawyers and government would be unleashed but nothing ever really was accomplished. Lawyers, who often fed journalists like Stossel the stories they reported, seemed to be the primary financial beneficiaries of the lawsuits. Government regulations often punished innocent businesspeople or were used by existing businesses to keep new innovators out of the market. Stossel eventually had an epiphany.
This revelation, that the free market generally worked best when it regulated itself, transformed Stossel from a member of the political left to a libertarian -- or as he prefers, a classical liberal. At this point Give Me a Break turns into a polemic that draws extensively from his work on 20/20 and his popular primetime specials. Stossel is an impassioned believer in the power of the free market and a very limited government. Not much avoids his critical gaze, whether it's the role of the media in spreading junk science, corporate welfare kings, or the cult of victimology.
His former allies, trial lawyers, come in for particularly enthusiastic attacks as he all but describes them as extortionists that take advantage of the fact that filing lawsuits -- even those with little merit -- is simple. Recounting his own legal battles, he describes lawsuits as "necessary, but evil" that can cause someone enormous harm even if they are in the right. Stossel argues that many lawsuits make us less safe, cost the economy jobs and a great deal of litigation is nothing but destructive, with only lawyers benefiting.
It is government, however, that is the primary focus of Give Me a Break. Stossel runs though a litany of examples that shows government is generally incapable of performing the functions it has taken upon itself since the 20th century, ones that aren't listed in the Constitution. Vast amounts of money are squandered to solve problems that are often pulled out of the ether by special interest groups, taking away resources from those who could utilize it the best.
Although Give Me a Break disappoints by Stossel not exploring his early career in greater depth, it is an admirable statement of principles. Although journalism is a profession that claims to proclaim objectivity as its guiding tenet, very few believe that personal views don't color reporting to some degree. Stossel should be commended for openly acknowledging his beliefs and congratulated for so compellingly arguing them. Stossel's peers may consider him a traitor but his popularity with the public suggests that he's struck a cord with many of them.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became
the Scourge of the Liberal Media... at Amazon.com for
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