May 2, 2006 | Commentary on Political Thought
If you're one of the millions of people who have watched John
Stossel's incisive and hard-hitting reports on ABC's 20/20 over the
years, you know that he's one of the best reporters in the
business. But you may not know that he's also an entertaining
speaker -- one who knows how to bring a crowd to its feet with a
unique blend of truth and humor.
The speech that Stossel delivered yesterday at The Heritage Foundation's President's Club meeting is ample proof. He knows, perhaps better than any other journalist out there, how to set the conventional wisdom on its head. If the "mainstream media" were filled with more reporters like him, the evening news would be far less dramatic. But it also would be a lot more honest.
The reason, as Stossel demonstrates not only on television but in his new book, "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity," is that too many journalists fail to dig deeply enough to get to the real story. They breathlessly hype the latest scare about everything from pesticides and "road rage" to cell phones and irradiated food. Deadly dangers lurk everywhere, and your Intrepid Reporter is all that stands between you and certain disaster. Film at 11!
Trouble is, a lot of it is bunk.
Considering how well fear and panic sell, of course, such behavior is hardly surprising. But as you read Stossel's book, you'll notice that a little old-fashioned research often demolishes what "everybody knows" on a wide array of topics.
Take process of irradiating food. When it first came along, it promised a real breakthrough for public health -- strawberries that stay fresh for three weeks and chicken without the harmful levels of salmonella that the Centers for Disease Control says cause many cases of food poisoning and kill 600 Americans every year. But many reporters, fed a steady diet of alarm by environmentalists, hear "radiation" and automatically link it with a laundry list of horrors, from Three-Mile Island to nuclear bombs. According to Stossel:
"They don't worry much about bacteria because bacteria is natural. But radiation is natural too. We are exposed to natural radiation every minute of our lives: cosmic radiation from space, radiation from the ground, and radiation from radon in the air we breathe. Every year, the average U.S. citizen is exposed to natural radiation equal to about 360 dental X-rays."Many journalists who hyped the irradiation scare didn't know that. And when a consumer-advocacy group named Food & Water told them that the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association didn't approve of irradiation, they reported it as fact. But it turns out that WHO and AMA do approve of irradiation. Indeed, WHO told Stossel they consider it as important as pasteurization (which was itself denounced as "meddling with nature" when it was first introduced).