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Lynching

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The most refreshing reporter on television, ABC’s John Stossel, is the target of nothing less than the modern equivalent of a lynching.

Stossel is the popular investigative reporter who focuses on scientifically dubious consumerism and environmentalism. On a recent 20/20 segment he took up — and debunked — the widely believed proposition that organic foods are safer than conventional foods. Unfortunately, his report contained an error. He erroneously believed and stated that an independent lab had tested organic and conventional produce. It turned out that the test had not been done. Instead, tests had been done on chicken. (The report was limited to produce.) It was a case of confusion, which persisted so long that ABC rebroadcast the segment.

As a result of the error, ABC suspended the segment’s producer and Stossel apologized on the air. Although conceding the error, he did not withdraw his conclusion that organic produce is no safer than other produce. He didn’t need to — it is true.

As Steven Milloy, a biostatistician affiliated with the Cato Institute, points out, all produce — including the organic variety — has traces of pesticides, but none present a health risk. The traces, he writes, are “within levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency — and the EPA standards are set many hundreds of times below levels at which noticeable effects may be observed in laboratory animals.” Milloy cites Mt. Sinai School of Medicine physician Philip Landigran — a critic of pesticides — who says no one has found an actual case of any disease caused by the legal use of pesticides.

This has not kept the Environmental Working Group from demanding that Stossel be hanged metaphorically from the nearest oak tree. EWG wants ABC to fire him forthwith. Luckily, ABC knows better. Stossel’s reports are not only refreshingly different from any other reporting in the major media today, they are also popular with viewers.

The irony is that if an environmentalist was fired every time he falsely alarmed the public, there’d be no one to run the multimillion dollar lobbying monolith. Stossel made one error. In contrast, the environmental movement has a long record — long exposed — of pushing junk science as a way to empower bureaucracy and themselves.

What’s revealing about this story is how it has been reported. Nowhere is the major media more biased than when they deal with environmental issues. A CNN bigwig has said that there is only one side to the environmental story.

Most reporters operate from a presumption in favor of environmental activists, “consumer advocates,” and government control, and against private enterprise and free markets. (The very label “consumer advocate” is laden with question-begging bias. Spokesmen for the environmental lobby are generally assumed to be objective, having only the welfare of the public at heart. They apparently have no career ambitions or desire for attention, not to mention higher incomes. In contrast, industry spokesmen are assumed to be lying to defend the profits of reptilian businessmen, while independent researchers who disagree with environmental orthodoxy are treated like prostitutes.

The bias is bad enough. What’s worse is that reporters, editors, and producers have been at it so long that they don’t even see it. In a New York Times article on the Stossel controversy, reporters Jim Rutenberg and Felicity Barringer wrote, “Mr. Stossel is an anomaly in television journalism. Reporters are generally forced to keep their ideologies to themselves. Mr. Stossel is allowed to make his views known.”

Do they honestly believe that most reporters “keep their ideologies to themselves”? When was the last time one of them confessed error after reporting an environmental alarm? And where is the evidence that Stossel subordinates his reporting to his personal beliefs? It’s a mistake to assume that because Stossel is the only one honest enough to own up to having a point of view, he’s the only reporter who has one.

If a reporter begins by distrusting capitalism and echoes any environmental scare, taking the activists’ statements at face value and permitting rebuttals only by people who can be characterized as greedy — that’s considered fair reporting. But if John Stossel marshals evidence to debunk bogus claims, clearing businessmen of charges that they knowingly and with malice aforethought try to kill their customers — that’s ideological bias.

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.