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12.06.09

Fitting In at Fox

As he debuts his prime-time show on Fox Business Network this week, John Stossel talks about his falling out with ABC, his Gordon Gekko fetish—and why Peter Jennings wouldn’t look at him.

When John Stossel announced in September that he was leaving ABC after 28 years and heading for Fox News, the obvious question was: What took him so long? The youthful-looking 62-year-old Princeton alum—who keeps fit by playing beach volleyball in Central Park with the likes of John McEnroe—had been co-anchoring the magazine show  20/20 with Barbara Walters. But if he was making more, he was enjoying it less. ABC’s press release announcing his departure was unusually candid, noting that the mustachioed Stossel “has engaged and occasionally enraged our audience with thought-provoking questions and analysis.”

“Peter felt he was upholding the objectivity of ABC and I was violating that, I was bad for ABC,” Stossel said.

He enraged not only the audience over the years, but also many at the network—notably the late Peter Jennings, who believed Stossel’s brand of libertarian advocacy journalism was a blot on the ABC escutcheon.  Jennings refused even to look at him when they passed in the halls. “Peter felt he was upholding the objectivity of ABC and I was violating that, I was bad for ABC,” Stossel tells The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview.

Stossel’s contrarian career had put him increasingly at odds with the corporate powers that be, earning him the enmity of the liberal establishment, media watchdog organizations, and consumer protection groups. A free-market absolutist and Ayn Rand fan who is openly contemptuous of the notion that government must intervene from time to time to protect us from ourselves, Stossel found it difficult to get his work on ABC’s news programs. “I was on World News Tonight once, I was on Nightline maybe once. There was never an appetite for John Stossel on those programs,” he says. “What changed was, I had more passion about doing economics. And they had less, and suddenly there was Fox, which had more room.” In recent weeks, Stossel has been an increasingly important presence on various Fox News shows; this Thursday at 8 p.m., he launches his hour-long weekly prime-time program, Stossel, on the fledgling Fox Business Network. Following in the footsteps of Don Imus, he's the latest hire in Chief Executive Roger Ailes’ efforts to recruit star talent and pump up ratings. Stossel spoke with The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove.

Stossel. How did you come up with that name?

They just sprung it on me.

Tell me a little bit about what the show is going to be.

It will be one subject. The first subject will be maybe Atlas Shrugged or global warming— Atlas Shrugged  because I think 50 years ago, Ayn Rand predicted today. It sort of sums up what I’m going to be reporting about.

Ayn Rand predicted what?

Big government, nice-sounding legislation like “The Preservation of Livelihood Law,” which mandated that Hank Rearden’s production must not be bigger than any other steel mill, to make it a level playing field. It’s silly.

Is that a new law passed by this Congress?

No, but it’s what Wesley Mouch,  the evil bureaucrat in the book, passed.  And what Tim Geithner and what Barney Frank might like to pass.

You left ABC, whose audience is many multiples of what the Fox Business Network is getting now. How do you feel about having a smaller audience?

Look, it’s a startup. It’s time in life, after 28 years at ABC, to do something new. People used to ask me: Why don’t you go on Fox, because you’d be happier there? And my answer was I’ve got 15 million people, and Fox has under a million. But when I left, 20/20 had maybe five or six million. Bill O’Reilly, including his reruns, is pretty close to that. So the difference is not so big anymore.

You expect to be happier here?

I’m already happier here. Because I’m free to do what I want to do. In the elevator, people say, “John Stossel, I’ve always loved your stuff, so glad you’re here.” That’s a nice feeling.

Obviously your reputation precedes you. How would you describe the show? More of what you had been doing at ABC News in a different kind of format?

Except I’d add the word “much”—“much” more of what I’d been doing.

One the reasons you left is you had these pieces in the can that ABC wasn’t putting on the air.

There was one in particular, where I had done an hour on Michael Moore’s Sicko, and “Sick in America,” we called it, about health care. This was before Obama, and I had all this great video of a lottery in Canada to get a doctor, lines in Britain, and how if you want quick care, you have to be a dog or a cat—good stuff that really addressed the current issue. I couldn’t get it on. I finally got on a little piece and I blogged about how some “Michael Jackson is still dead” story bumped me and I was pissed. Some of my blog readers said, “Yeah Stossel, he was hung by his own petard, your beloved free market!” I had to admit, yep, that’s the market—it’s parts I like, parts I don’t. ABC felt that’s what the audience wanted. So be it. But Fox has room for both. It’s 24 hours.

The late Peter Jennings was embarrassed by you and wouldn’t even look at you when you passed in the hall, and you'd been at ABC since 1981. Did it get increasingly difficult for you to thrive in that corporate environment?

That didn't change.  I was on World News Tonight once, I was on Nightline maybe once. There was never an appetite for John Stossel on those programs. And Peter felt he was upholding the objectivity of ABC and I was violating that, I was bad for ABC. What changed was, I had more passion about doing economics. And they had less, and suddenly there was Fox, which had more room.

You described yourself as having had an epiphany when you were considering doing a consumer-protection piece about exploding plastic cigarette lighters. And you said this is ridiculous, that’s enough.

You’re really condensing it. But in my book Give Me a Break, there’s a chapter called “Epiphany,” which is also misleading because it makes it seem like it was ooph! And it was more gradual, it was seeing that all this regulation I was calling for didn’t make it better for consumers. But it took me years to see that.

That was the early 1990s, but before that you were a good Upper West Side liberal, right?

Yes, and a good Portland, Oregon, liberal before that. I was working at Channel 2 as a consumer reporter, and it’s true, the Bic lighter story was the start.  There was the regulation business. We would send the television set to a bunch of places. Say you had a loose wire. Three places would say, “Oh yeah, we’ll take it in,” and they’d charge us $200. Twenty places would say, “you’ve got a loose wire, we’ll fix it.” And I would go back and confront the three. “Would you ever cheat people?” “Oh no, never.” “Oh yeah? Watch this!” And the politicians would call and say, “That was great TV, we’re going to fix it, we’re gonna license these people.” And people liked that—we license dogs, we license drivers, and intuitively, you think it’ll make it better.

Because I stayed on the beat, I saw that it didn’t. We did the story later and the same thing was happening. What was the Department of Consumer Affairs doing? They had big offices. Now, before you could be a TV repairman, you had to hire a lawyer to fill out forms to send in fees. It screwed poor people, an immigrant who wanted to open a business, because he wouldn’t know how to file these things. It raised prices for everybody, or they had to live in the underground. So I was seeing that on the one hand, and on the other hand, we were doing all these scare stories, and I started to think, we put equal hype on each. “Tonight on 20/20, The Daily Beast will kill you!” And some obviously were more dangerous than others.

So you are now a very strong believer in the free markets.

You betcha.

They’ve been working so well that a year ago in September, because of the relative absence of regulation, the markets just functioned perfectly, and required no government intervention. That was it, pretty much. Right, John?

Pretty much, except for some ridiculous assumptions in your question. But we haven't had a free market. We had Barney Frank pressuring people to lend to people who shouldn’t have been loaned to.

You’re talking about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac being asked to lend to people who didn’t have sufficient credit.

People who didn’t have a down payment. Banks pressured to lend to minorities even if they didn't have a typical credit history, because otherwise they were discriminating. And Fannie and Freddie were saying, don’t worry, we’ll buy up all these mortgages. And tons of regulation. Bush didn’t erase any regulation, he added more regulation than any president before him. But people act as if it’s a horrible crisis, and I say that is ridiculous! Because in 1982, where was the Dow Jones average? What is it, 11000 today? Where was it in 1982? It was at 800! So in 28 years, it’s gone from 80, to 8000 and above. Had that happened steadily, we’d be saying, aren’t free markets wonderful? What a wonderful boom period! But because we had a bubble caused partly by government, the Federal Reserve making money cheap, we had a boom and it popped. I don’t think that discredits capitalism. But look, we’re prosperous in America. It’s not because of government. The people who tried government regulation have lives which are miserable.

Do you still worship at the altar of Gordon Gekko?

I never worshipped at the altar of Gordon Gekko. I did do an ABC Special titled “Greed.” I argued that when markets are free, and when government does not collude with business, greed is useful. People acting in their own self-interest is the fuel for all the discovery, innovation, and prosperity that powers the world. Gordon Gekko is a lefty in sheep’s clothing. Sort of like George W. Bush.

Gordon Gekko describes a world the way a socialist bureaucrat sees it: Wealth is a static pie and rich people grab the biggest share. But that’s a child’s view of the way the world works. I make speeches arguing the opposite. Wealth is created. When entrepreneurs are free to compete, they grow the pie so that everyone’s share gets larger.

Goldman Sachs—doing  God’s work? The bonuses don’t bother you?

They bother me because they got handouts from government. Otherwise no, they don’t bother me. They’re a little gross in some cases.

You have an aesthetic objection.

They in some cases haven’t added much to the economy, but most of their work is figuring out how to get rich and the way they do that is send capital to the businesses they think will grow best. By doing that, they help America. They fund the better businesses, the ones that are going to grow, which means employ more people and which means produce goods that people want. That’s good. I’m happy with Goldman Sachs.

And you didn’t like the government bailing out GM and Chrysler and telling them how to run their businesses?

No, it’s awful. A thousand restaurants close every month. They re-open, and that’s good for America. Nobody’s rescuing them. They employ people, too. If we let them go bankrupt, the factories don’t go away, the creative people don’t go away. They get employed more productively by others. I would say it’s disgusting what we did with GM and Chrysler. Though I own a Chrysler minivan. I bought a new one on the day they went bankrupt.

You’re a hardcore libertarian, down the line, right? Legalize drugs?

Absolutely—drugs, prostitution, steroids for athletes. If Major League Baseball wants to have a no-steroid rule, fine. But it’s none of Congress’ business. If we want to have a National Steroid League football games, and they're consenting adults, that’s fine. I’m happy if states legislate different limits, 18, 16, 21, different things, but certainly by 21, we should own our own bodies.

What’s your overall critique of the Democrats’ plan to overhaul health care? You think they're just lying when they say their health-care plan is deficit neutral?

“Lie” means you're doing it and you know it’s a lie. A lot of what they do is just wishful thinking and arrogance. It’s certainly a lie when you say we’re going to cover more people and we’re going to cover more stuff and we’re going to make it cost less.

And you also think the anti-smoking laws in New York are bad?

I love them. I don’t like the smell of smoke. But I think it’s the tyranny of the majority.

You wouldn’t mind going into a restaurant where people are smoking in a designated room and the fumes are wafting into your meal?

If that happened, I wouldn’t go back. But the poor smokers, can’t they have some bars, some restaurants? I think that’s oppression. And I’m surprised the smokers don’t protest. People just take it. Thomas Jefferson said it’s the natural progress of things for the government to grow. People just take it.

And your overall critique of Obama administration is what?

Arrogant expanders of government.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.