Stossel: A No-Spin Zone of My Own

Wednesday, Feb. 4

John Stossel, the 56-year-old crusading co-anchor of ABC News’ 20/20 , missed the Super Bowl half-time show on Sunday, Feb. 1. As he put it the next day, “I have not seen the tit-baring event.”

Even so, Mr. Stossel-a convert to strict libertarianism-said boobs on TV were just a byproduct of a healthy capitalist society. “I hardly think baring a breast is a threat to the Republic,” he said.

But while Mr. Stossel wouldn’t condemn Janet Jackson, there’s plenty of social judgmentalism in his new book, Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media , which hit No. 3 on The New York Times best-seller list this week. It would appear to crown Mr. Stossel’s transformation from Mark Spitz–look-alike consumer advocate to a grouchy free-market advocate.

But John Stossel has bigger plans than knocking Bill O’Reilly out as King of the Red States. He won’t be truly happy until the departing ABC icon Barbara Walters has strapped her Gucci bags and left him with 20/20 as his very own no-spin zone in the ABC empire.

“She’s going to be around until September,” Mr. Stossel said. “After that, I want to do the show by myself.”

That was news to executives at ABC News. In the days after Ms. Walters’ announcement, a spokesman for the network was quoted saying that an “ensemble cast” was more likely once Ms. Walters departed. And staffers at ABC and elsewhere in the TV industry have speculated that 20/20 correspondent Elizabeth Vargas would take Ms. Walters’ place once she left.

“Fortunately, we have the luxury of time to figure out exactly how 20/20 will look after Barbara leaves in September,” said an ABC News spokesman. “We have not made any decisions yet.”

The idea of Mr. Stossel taking over as the show’s anchor begs a few questions, not the least of which is if 20/20 will take on Mr. Stossel’s libertarian tenor, aside from the “Give Me a Break” segments that he already does. Another question: As Big Dog, would he do the big celebrity interviews that Ms. Walters has done-like Michael Jackson?

“God, that’s a tough one,” said Mr. Stossel. “Yeah, I would do the interview. It hasn’t been my area of expertise, but if that’s part of the job, I’ll do it.”

But Mr. Stossel’s true love remains the contrarian “who woulda figured?” investigation, predicated on the idea that the free market is a cure-all for social ills, and that government institutions and the “totalitarian left,” as Mr. Stossel has called them-environmentalists, the liberal media and Upper West Side liberals (“where the New York Times writers live,” he said)-deserve a good drubbing.

What a weird world this has become!

So far, Mr. Stossel’s angle has spiked ratings. His one-hour special on Friday, Jan. 23, Lies, Myths and Downright Stupidity , a title with a decidedly Al Franken–like ring, pulled in 12 million viewers. In it, Mr. Stossel ostensibly debunked a number of time-honored “myths”: cold weather causes colds, Republicans shrink government, chemicals cause cancer, guns are bad, rich people don’t pay their fair share of taxes. It offered a little something for everyone, and even more for people who can’t stand environmentalists and gun-control types.

Like right-wing convert and new CNBC talk-show host Dennis Miller, Mr. Stossel has seen the writing on the wall in the recent years: Conservative contrarianism goes over pretty well on TV in the O’Reilly Factor era. And if ABC News president David Westin wants to broaden the parameters of the news institution, Mr. Stossel is offering some distinctly Fox News–like services. “Fortunately, David Westin thinks I deserve a place at the table,” said Mr. Stossel, even though “he may not agree with my point of view.”

Which table, and which dinner, remains to be seen. But Mr. Stossel didn’t like the implication that he was following Bill O’Reilly’s lead-because Mr. Stossel was first !

“That’s wrong and unfair,” he said. “I was certainly doing this before O’Reilly was on the air. I’m doing it because 25 years of reporting showed me that regulation repeatedly fails and wrecks lives.”

Later, Mr. Stossel said he couldn’t compare himself to Mr. O’Reilly because he wasn’t aware of his ideological stance. But he did like Mr. O’Reilly’s contrarian take on the news to provoke argument. “We are similar in that way,” he said, adding that he was actually an admirer of Fox News, and was offered a job at Fox broadcast network some 12 years ago.

“I think they are lively,” he said. “They put on people from the left and the right. They lean to the right as CNN leans to the left.”

Mr. Stossel was being a little coy about Mr. O’Reilly. For one, Mr. O’Reilly blurbed his book, and then on Jan. 26, Mr. Stossel actually appeared on The O’Reilly Factor to talk about Ms. Walter’s departure. They seemed to know each other pretty well:

O’Reilly : Are they going to keep it-the format-the same and look for a co-anchor with you?

Stossel : They may. I’d like to do it by myself, actually.

O’Reilly : Of course, you would, Stossel.

Because Mr. Stossel believes in stuff like legalizing drugs and the right to burn American flags, he was quick to point out that he was no Republican lackey-he irritates the right wing, too. “The moral conservatives are highly offended by me,” he said. Mr. Stossel said he was annoyed that his publisher, HarperCollins, insisted on putting “Scourge of the Liberal Media” in his book title, because he didn’t think it accurately reflected his views.

“I think it is misleading,” he said. “I was annoyed at the subtitle but I went along with it because the publisher knows how to sell books …. It makes me seem conservative. And it insults them , too. I’m more liberal than them, because I’m libertarian .”

“I was just exercising my freedom as an editor to position the book politically in a crowded marketplace,” said Mr. Stossel’s HarperCollins editor, David Hirshey, “and being a good libertarian, John ought to support that.”

To hear Mr. Stossel tell it, pretty much everyone has been offended by his work for one reason or another. Poor fella!

“I feel lonely,” he said. “I don’t really give a shit if it sells books or not, but I have to believe what I’ve learned in the course of my journalism career: I’ve come to believe that free markets are a wonderful thing, and if that means I’m lonely, so be it.”

Still, he said he gets a warmer reception from right-wing groups at the numerous paid speaking engagements he makes at organizations like the Federalist Society, the conservative legal club. “Weirdly enough, the conservatives seem more tolerant of social libertarians,” he said. “Conservatives will invite me to speak at a conservative college group. The hatred I feel comes from the left. These people will be adamantly pro-life and against prostitution and drugs and flag-burning, yet they will invite me to speak and have an intelligent debate about it.”

During a speech to the Federalist Society in 1996, Mr. Stossel explained his philosophical shift from consumer reporter to libertarian anti-government guy: “I got sick of it,” he said then. “I also now make so much money I just lost interest in saving a buck on a can of peas.”

As a result, Mr. Stossel’s longtime advocate and fan, Ralph Nader, rejected him. As Mr. Stossel writes-trumpets-in his book, Mr. Nader considers him “lazy and dishonest.” And Mr. Stossel has come under repeated scrutiny from media watchdogs about some of his reporting. In 2000, an eye-opening report on the supposed dangers of organic food was found to have some tricked-out research in it, and Mr. Stossel eventually issued an on-air correction.

“I’ve had people come up to me on the street and say, ‘I hope you die soon,’” said Mr. Stossel.

In his book, Mr. Stossel cites cases in which ABC producers lashed out at him, starting with his first libertarian coming-out story, “Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?”, which debunked a lot of other “myths,” including the one about the environment going to hell. “When I did my first special, two producers quit,” he said. “They said, ‘This isn’t journalism, this is dogma .’”

When he said that, Mr. Stossel did an imitation of a whiny, outraged person-but it sounded like a mockery of his old self, the crusading reporter who didn’t want people to get ripped off by the canned-pea company. Many of Mr. Stossel’s examples of criticism from friends and foes took place years ago, and Mr. Stossel wasn’t exactly sure if his colleagues at ABC News were still talking about him behind his back.

“I assume so,” he said. “They tend not to do it to my face. I don’t know exactly what they’re saying.”

One ABC News insider told NYTV that Mr. Stossel inspires more eye-rolling than anger. “I think John vastly overestimates the amount people are thinking about him,” the source said. “That said, he does what he does well.”

What did Mr. Stossel think was the source of all this ire? “I think it comes from a bizarre, ignorant anger because they think I am conservative,” he said.

For now, Mr. Stossel is keeping a close eye on the Times best-seller list. And on his watch. And on his co-workers. And on Ms. Walters. And her suitcases. And on the left. And the right. And Ralph Nader. Tonight, it’s Celebrity Mole Yucatan ! [WABC, 7, 10 p.m.]

Thursday, Feb. 5

) CNN’s Gen-X paleo-yuppie pundit guy, Tucker Carlson, didn’t think much of Ms. Jackson’s “knockers” on Sunday.

“My complaint is essentially an aesthetic one,” he said. “I don’t want to see Janet Jackson’s knockers. I’d be happy to see some during half time, but she’s not one of them. She’s creepy. What is she exactly? She’s like a male impersonator impersonating a female impersonator.”

So how about some moral outrage, Tucker?

“The one thing that keeps me from being outraged is the placement,” he said. “It wasn’t in the middle of Barney or something.”

Instead, it was during a show watched mainly, he said, by viewers who were either “drunk” or “brain dead.”

“And who is Justin Timberlake anyway?” he said. “I know he’s a singer or something.”

But didn’t Mr. Carlson interview Britney Spears on CNN last year, asking her about George W. Bush? Apparently, a producer booked that one, because Mr. Carlson said he would never deign to listen to her music.

“I would never let my kids listen to that shit,” he said. Instead, he refers the children to “soulful music” like the Grateful Dead.

“If you want Janet Jackson to go away, ignore her,” he advised. “Personally, I’d like to see a Harper’s Index done on the whole thing. ‘Percentage chance that Janet Jackson’s knockers are real: zero.’”

Tonight, on Crossfire , Mr. Carlson exposes Robert Novak’s nipple brooch during a “wardrobe malfunction” with his Brooks Brothers buttons. Note to Michael Powell: Novak promised that by the end of the primary season … he’d be naked . [CNN, 10, 4:30 p.m.]

Friday, Feb. 6

) Tonight on 20/20 , Barbara Walters interviews Donald Trump and his kids for a one-hour special on nepotism. Meanwhile, John Stossel eyes Ms. Walters’ chair. It’s an Aeron. [ABC, 7, 10 p.m.]

Saturday, Feb. 7

r Lawrence O’Donnell, senior political analyst for MSNBC and writer for NBC’s The West Wing , is spending his nights hammering away on a satirical TV pilot for HBO. He described it to NYTV as a kind of Larry Sanders Show set in the world he knows intimately: cable news.

“It’s a show that will live in the real world,” he said. In The Larry Sanders Show , “they weren’t pretending they were living in a fictional world …. It will be an ensemble comedy with the main characters being the backstage types-execs and producers.”

His as-yet-untitled show could only be a comedy, Mr. O’Donnell said, because, let’s face it, TV-news dramas are failed ventures from the get-go. “They have all failed,” he said. “They should all fail.”

“The only drama set in the news business that came close to being successful was Lou Grant,” he continued. “And that was a relationship show and didn’t turn as much on dramatic events.”

As for MSNBC’s inspiration to Mr. O’Donnell, he said there would be no roman à clef at work-that means the chubby blond news host won’t really be Chris Matthews-and he also said his employer will be especially pleased with one aspect of this half-fictional universe: MSNBC won’t be in last place. “They’ll be beating us in the ratings,” he said. “We will be the fourth place in cable news. We’ll be desperately trying to claw up.”

If the show takes, it will probably air in 2005, he said. Won’t the cable-news business have changed quite a bit by then? “That’s all up to Michael Jackson,” said Mr. O’Donnell.

No laugh track tonight for Deborah Norville Tonight . [MSNBC, 43, 2 a.m.]

Sunday, Feb. 8

@ Justin “The Ripper” Timberlake shows up, unless he’s bra-listed at CBS, on The 46th Annual Grammy Awards . If you look closely, you might spy CBS chief Les Moonves spot-welding Christina Aguilera’s chest just off stage left. [WCBS, 2, 8 p.m.]

Monday, Feb. 9

b Tonight, Carol Burnett and Friends : It just gets better and better. And further and further. Like really funny cave drawings that move. [TVLAND, 85, 8 p.m.]

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