I grew up in New York with John Stossel, first on WCBS-TV, then on “Good Morning America,” before he moved on to “20/20.” I always enjoyed his ability to challenge conventional wisdom with logic and facts. He has also managed to wear a mustache with dignity, a rare feat.
Last fall, he joined Fox Business, which airs his weekly one-hour show Thursdays at 8 p.m.. He also shows up frequently on other Fox News shows, such as “The O’Reilly Factor.” And he plans to do occasional specials along the lines of what he did for ABC.
Stossel is fundamentally a journalist with common sense, a consumer advocate who became a Libertarian. Ultimately, he finds most, if not all, government regulation incompetent, inefficient and/or pointless.
“You need government for pollution control rules, keep us safe from foreign enemies and keep me from hurting you or stealing your stuff,” Stossel said. “That’s about it.”
When I asked him if there was any government agency that operated well, he couldn’t come up with any. “The Peace Corps was a good idea in the beginning. So were public schools. But bureaucracies decay. Government never does things more efficiently than the private sector.”
Stossel is used to doing scripted, polished TV specials. His Fox show is more free wheeling and is taped in front of a live audience.
“I’m struggling to learn a new skill,” Stossel said in an interview last week. “I spent years where I would edit this little movie. This is much more spontaneous. That’s the Fox way.”
He tries to ensure the audience is not just packed with acolytes but sprinkled with opponents to whatever topic he is espousing. For instance, Stossel is skeptical that global warming is all that important or crucial in the grand scheme of problems facing the Earth. He brought in opponents, many environmental science students.
What surprised him was their relative timidity. “I’ve spoken to college students before. They can be wonderfully aggressive. I just assumed these kids would be like that,” he said. “But maybe the TV cameras chilled them.”
He said he’s had no problem coming up with topics. (He plans to do 44 shows a year.) In one episode, he used an example of fish pedicures to illustrate how government comes up with stupid rules that defend against unlikely harm. Some states have banned fish nibbling your skin cuticles. He tried it. “It was creepy at first,” he said. “Then it felt good. I don’t know if it actually did anything to my feet but maybe I didn’t do it long enough. I’m not endorsing it. I don’t know if it works.” He simply thinks some salons are trying to tamp down competition by lobbying for government laws.
He also did a show about whether the Ayn Rand classic “Atlas Shrugged” and its image of bloated government has actually come true. Tonight, he goes after “crony capitalism.” Big business often curries favor with government to create rules that favor them and hurt upstarts (and ultimately consumers.)
Stossel does love virtually untethered capitalism: “Businesses have to please customers and innovate every minute and constantly adjust to reality. Government almost never changes and don’t innovate.” We talked about the U.S. Postal Service. At one time, the agency said delivering goods overnight was impossible. Then FedEx came along. Soon enough, the postal service found a way to offer overnight packages.
Future topics include “the food police.” He’s going to bring in people who believe schools should ban certain “bad” foods and prohibit bake sales. Obviously, Stossel takes a dim view of this. He will look at energy independence and alternative sources. Interestingly, he is not necessarily a supporter of nuclear. “I thought at first it was a good option but nuclear feeds off big government subsidies. It’s not clear if it’s better than natural gas. We’ve found ways to extract natural gas out of rocks we couldn’t do before.”
He also wants to point out how we live so much better now than we did a few years ago in terms of safety and terrorism. “By and large, crime is down and terrorism is down. And most people’s standards of living have improved despite what you see in the news.” (Yes, he told me this in that same sing-song style he does on air. He sounds a bit like Al Gore that way.)
Are his Fox viewers reacting differently to him than the ABC viewers? “There are fewer crazy obscene comments on Fox compared to ABC” on his blog, he said. “People are more civilized.” Among his colleagues, he feels better liked. “It’s a much better vibe,” he said. At ABC, he recalled, “Peter Jennings would look away when I was in the hall.”
He also knows some of his viewpoints don’t jibe with some Fox News fans. He will, for instance, tackle drug legalization, which he supports as a Libertarian. He also believes in legal first trimester abortion, though he’s not sure if he will touch that touchy subject. And he knows he has plenty of critics, such as this piece on alternet.
On a lighter topic, I asked if he has ever been mistaken for Geraldo Rivera, another bushy mustached journalist. “I used to when we were at ‘20/20′ and our offices were across from each other. He was the star. Many more people then would come up to me and say, ‘Hey Geraldo!’ Over the years, it’s more ‘Gimme a break!’ ” [That's the line he'd use during his specials]
Ironically, he now works across the hall at Fox from… Geraldo Rivera. “He was very welcoming,” he said. “He told some reporter he was instrumental bringing me over here. Maybe that’s true.”
He then noted that late-night host Jimmy Fallon last fall did a mustache battle between Rivera and Stossel called “Stache Bash ‘09.” You’ll have to watch to find out who won.
“Stossel,” 8 p.m. Fox Business, Thursdays