Book Review

Give Me a Break — How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media
John Stossel
Harper Collins 2004

Give Me a Break is must reading for anyone truly concerned about the future of this great country and the preservation of the traditional American way of life. Undoubtedly, many will be shocked by his shattering of the multitude of liberal myths that have a stranglehold on current thoughts and actions. Although it is flavored with appropriate humor, it is not for the weak of heart who cannot bear to have their cranial tranquility disturbed.

Stossel states that the book is a story of his professional and intellectual journey. He never planned to be a reporter; he never was much of a public speaker, kind of shy, and afflicted with a stuttering problem. He admits to day-dreaming through half of his classes at Princeton, and then applied to graduate school since it seemed to be the right path. This story sounds quite familiar and could apply to many individuals.

King broadcasting happened to be the first to offer him a job. He started as a gofer, worked his way up writing stories, and then the director told him to go on air. The author says he was nervous, awkward, and scared, but persisted because he needed to succeed. Early in the book it becomes clear that Stossel is an extremely honest person, who, unlike many, indulges in thorough self-examination.

He notes that he was once a heroic consumer reporter, but now is a threat to journalism. Give Me a Break is undoubtedly part of a mission to determine how and why, after his many successful exposés for which he won 18 Emmys and many other awards and was called the bravest and best and the man who makes them squirm he is considered such a scourge. Could it be that maybe he was too honest, logical, and dedicated? The author points out one mistake that of not just applying his skepticism to business, but later to government and public interest groups.

He refers to an early-on job with WCBS TV as a disappointment. Thinking that he would really learn what journalism was all about, he became disillusioned with union rules that discouraged work and creativity. The attitude was that there was no reason to work harder because everyone got paid the same. Of course, it is amazing how many people buy into such.

From there Stossel went to CBS news. Ed Joyce gave him his chance to cover the stories he wanted, realizing that the important news happened slowly. He became involved in what was being dumped into the Hudson River, new drugs, and sales pitches that were scams, among others. Then in 1981 Roone Arledge offered him a job at ABC as a correspondent for 20/20 and consumer reporter for Good Morning America. His first story dealt with the envelope-stuffing scam, and then came crooked diamond merchants. He notes that he was not saving the American way of life, but at least letting people know how they were abused. Stossel was amazed at how blasé people seemed when having their careers exposed as frauds.

In the first few chapters of Give Me a Break, it becomes very apparent that the author has the ability to weave intriguing tales and he sets a good example for telling it the way it is and digging for the truth, regardless of the consequences. Stossel notes that he was bullied as a kid, and then he had a camera and a million viewers that gave him the power to embarrass the bullies and expose their tricks. However, merely confronting the bad guys was not enough. He wanted to stop them and have the victims compensated. Undoubtedly, he became frustrated, as many investigators and writers do.

Throughout the book the author describes in depth the many cases he investigated. There were the regulations and licensing boards that did not make life any better; scam vocational schools where students received government scholarships; little businesses, such as ladies knitting mittens in their homes, that were killed; and exorbitant funerals. The real beneficiaries of regulation, he notes, were the entrenched businesses, unions, and the regulators themselves, Identified was the power of government to stifle competition and make things more expensive, such as in the milk business, laws that protect unions and nail the taxpayer, chicken inspectors that cannot detect what makes people sick, outlawing of cheaper ways to travel to work, and child labor laws that prevent youngsters from learning the value of the dollar and having the time of their lives. In respect to the latter Stossel says let the parents make the decisions. Then there was the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration, Consumer Products Safety Commission, and so on. He cheered them on, but protection often does more harm than good. And every regulation turned out many lawyers and reams of paperwork. Undoubtedly, John Stossel is too logical and makes too much sense. And, it is apparent that he was not afraid to take anyone on. How often does one find individuals like this?

As his career proceeded he was coming to see that in a free, open society competition gets the information out, and letting that process flow protects consumers better than government command and control. Also, that often government is often the problem rather than the solution. His wit and common sense produced a multitude of memorable statements along the way. How about, “If I am dying, should not the government allow me the right to try whatever I want?” Stossel, incidentally, admits that it had taken him fifteen years in his profession to see all this. Of course, the vast majority of the populace never get to this point.

The author’s appreciation for a free society and free enterprise is very apparent. He notes the damage that regulation does to the American spirit; that leaving people alone will result in the creation of systems that benefit everyone the most; government makes adjustments every two to four or six years, while the market can adjust thousands of times a second; governments can wage war, guard borders, police cities, enforce pollution, for example, but everything else should be left to the private sector. Very noble pronouncements, indeed. Stossel did admit that the idea that relaxing rules actually benefits consumers is so counterintuitive that he did not get it even as he watched it work. Despite this we keep passing rules, every week another thousand.

Yes, the private sector most often can do a better job. Reference is made to what the federal government has done to American forests. He notes that reporters call fires natural disasters or tragic accidents, but in fact the culprit is government mismanagement. Private companies eager to profit manage them properly. But, if you are the Secretary of the Interior, why bother offending the Environmentalists?

Stossel relates case after case that he was involved in during recent years, making many noteworthy comments in the process. We are conditioned to think that public facilities are better than private, but, think again; the conceit of the anointed who have all the answers; foolishness of OSHA which always finds problems; the Nanny State with its suffocating burden of millions of little rules; and regulators who believe zero risk is possible.

He admits that for most of his career he was part of the problem reporting on statistically insignificant threats such as lawn chemicals, exploding coffee makers, among others with crusading lawyers and environmental activists getting him to do frightening stories. Was not this a distortion of the public’s understanding of what’s really risk? And risk takers built America.

By 1985 he was so sick of indiscriminate hyping of risks he decided to rank them, coming up with a “death list.” He found that hot tap water, stairs, bunk beds, drowning in bath tubs kill more people than most of the risks we hysterically warn people about. This led to his risk assessment show “Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?,” which greatly increased his name recognition. Among other things it pointed out that we are living longer than ever, chemical pollution is decreasing, smog is down, and water is cleaner. The zealous pursuit of an ever more pristine environment brings diminishing returns. How much protection do we really need? Stossel made an excellent point in his statement that when government spends vast amounts on small risks it makes people poorer and that shortens lives.

Chapter Six is entitled “Junk Science and Junk Reporting.” He notes that when he first started reporting he thought scientists were dispassionate observers, so what they published must be objective truth. He became disillusioned, finding that individual scientists reach dubious conclusions, almost as much as the rest of us do. And, such is peddled by a gullible press. He notes that there are good, objective scientists but sometimes it is hard to find them. Unfortunately, this has become all too true. Then there are the lawyers, to whom, when there is money on the line, truth may not matter at all. Again, Stossel admits that he fell for a lot of this junk. He notes that reporters are still prone to the same mental errors that caused witches to be burned.

The following chapter focuses on government. Again he emphasizes that the important jobs are almost always done better by private companies, using airport security, UPS, and FedEx as examples. He ridicules Tom Daschle for his nonsense statement “you can’t professionalize, if you do not federalize.” Free markets are better, the author says, because people get to vote more often. And, another tidbit, “imagine if you bought food like you vote.” Then a case in point — Austin, Texas, where only a governmental monoply, with no competition and no incentive to try harder, can sell tap water for more than the price of gasoline, and still manage to lose many. That hits the nail. Other boondoggles involving accounting discrepancies, $330,000 outhouses, million dollar four-holers, and farms, are discussed.

Stossel does make it clear, however, that he is not saying that we do not need government. He is no anarchist. We need the rule of law.

Chapter Eight is entitled “Welfare for the Rich.” He poses the question of when we take rich people off the dole. Their lobbyists fawn over politicians, giving them campaign contributions, planning trips, dinners, etc. in exchange for huge bits of your money. Obviously, Stossel doesn’t pull his punches, willing to go after anyone when he sees injustice. This country certainly needs more of his ilk. He incidentally attacks himself for taking Uncle Sam’s money for replacing a house that an idiot built on the edge of the ocean. Stossel also takes on wealthy farmers and those that allow taxpayers money to be spent for building palaces for sports fans. Then there are the politicians so eager to help their rich friends that they will take your home to do it, in the guise of eminent domain. He does mention that thanks to the Fifth Amendment they have to provide just compensation. The trouble is the government decides what is just.

Chapter Nine is appropriately entitled “The Trouble With Lawyers.” Stossel considers them necessary evils, but, like nuclear missiles, try not to use them, because they can harm innocent people. Certainly an excellent analogy. He figures the tort lawyers, those who sue businesses, hurt five for every one they help. Trial lawyers should be a good thing, but something has gone horribly wrong. He ends this discussion saying that this is the only country where I can sue you, wreck your life, be wrong, and then just walk away. No loser pays.

The following chapter is somewhat confusing probably as a result of the confusion that prevails over the difference between a conservative and a liberal. Stossel notes the ingrained myth that conservatives are repressive, fearful of new things and indifferent to the suffering of the poor. This view is especially common in New York City where he works and lives. He is surprised that so many people call him a conservative. He would prefer the designation libertarian, because of his views on issues such as drugs, prostitution, abortion, homosexuality and foul language, Whatever the case, Stossel shares many true conservative values.

The attention given to detail in what is supposed to be a book review should suggest just how interesting and enlightening Give Me a Break is. From this point on — the last 30 percent of text — the intention is to merely point out the topics covered. The victim matter, disabilities act and associated legal dealings, Social Security disabilities, chemical sensitivity, jurosomatic illness, my aching back, a poverty industry, charity, capitalism the best poverty fighter, economic freedom, corporate greed, greed is good, pursuit of profit, capitalism is ugly, the robber barons, owning your body, sex, drugs, and free speech are interestingly discussed.

John Stossel ends his treatise saying that, despite his complaints about big government and political censorship, America is still a relatively open society. Openness has made America prosperous. He notes that during every presidential election reporters ask, “Who will run the country?” “A president runs the country! What arrogance.” Fortunately, he notes, America is run by millions of free people. And, most of the best of life has nothing to do with government. Government does not create new musicals, produce miracle drugs, invent things like the computer chip, build cars, or build enterprises that supply the country with its amazing variety of food, shelter, and clothing.

Stossel’s book will undoubtedly stimulate much thought and, hopefully, prompt a desire to get more in line with the traditional American way of life. Incidentally, there are those who would consider being the scourge of the liberal media an honor.

Nate Dickinson
April 13, 2004

Email Nate Dickinson: rdickinson@nycap.rr.com

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