Emmy award-winning consumer reporter and libertarian television host John Stossel spoke about the dangers of government overreach and sensational reporting during a talk on April 1. The lecture, titled “Freedom and its Enemies,” was hosted by the Young Americans for Liberty club. YAL member Trevor Filseth ’20 described the organization as “the closest thing we have to a conservative club at Brandeis.”

Stossel said he began his career believing capitalism was inherently exploitative and that only through government regulation could individuals be protected. Most of his television programs were exposés that focused on fishy business practices, but he said the reporting awards he got early in his career, including 19 Emmy awards, were the result of him “[following] the pack.” When he shifted the focus of his exposés to government inefficiencies, he said, he stopped winning awards.

From 1981 to 2009, Stossel worked as a consumer reporter for ABC News for its programs 20/20 and Good Morning America. During his time there, he came to realize the power of the free market and the government’s tendency to make life harder for its citizens, he said. After this realization, Stossel said that the question that motivated his investigations was, “How can I provide the other side [of the issues]?” 

Stossel left ABC News for the Fox News Business Network in 2009 to host his own show, “Stossel,” and appeared on other Fox shows including The O’Reilly Factor. In one piece for Fox News, he tried to open a lemonade stand in New York City, but was forced to close his shop when police told him he did not have the paperwork to maintain his business. On his program, he then listed the certifications that he would need to operate his lemonade stand legally, including a 15-hour food protection course, passing a one hour exam where  applicants must wait three to five weeks for the Food Protection Certificate to arrive in the mail, a Temporary Food Establishment Permit and adhering to a number of other regulations. Stossel concluded that although the government tries to protect citizens, in many cases it often impairs their independence with overregulation.

Stossel argued that the only function government should have is the enforcement of boundaries and property rights. Later, in response to a question from an audience member, he added that the government should also monitor and enforce environmental regulations.

Stossel suggested that liberal values among college professors are the result of these professors’ feelings of unfairness and of superiority. Brandeis students, he said, “may be taught by professors who are angry that they went to college with someone who was a little stupider than them academically who went on to business to make a lot of money.” He did not provide evidence to support this claim, however. He also expressed frustration at his inability to find acceptance among a liberal audience, saying that he agrees with most progressive social policies such as decriminalizing marijuana, sex work and doctor-assisted suicide, as well as protecting reproductive rights.

Stossel disputed that the effectiveness of government oversight in the workplace by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was bad for the long-term health of citizens. He argued that unsafe equipment and workplaces are eventually fixed by a free market system because organizations learn to fix problems and unsafe procedures without government oversight.

Stossel also disputed the effectiveness of OSHA in reducing accidents and fatalities in the workplace, saying that the government taking credit for reduced workplace fatalities was akin to someone jumping in front of a parade and claiming that they had led it. The data, he contended, suggested that workplace fatalities were already on the decline before OSHA was implemented. An audience member said during the Q&A following the lecture that OSHA was not the only piece of legislation designed to improve working conditions for Americans, and said that Stossel, by ignoring this fact, did not fairly represent the progression of safety in America.

Stossel then discussed the problems introduced by President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, a series of bills which established programs and institutions including Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid. “We get the unintended consequences that you always get with government control. We taught some people to be dependent. We taught mothers that they were better off if the father was not in the house,” he said. He did not provide evidence to substantiate this claim.

Stossel was critical of sensational reporting that does more to stoke fears in the public than to actually inform consumers. For instance, he said, the coverage of plane crashes in the news media makes planes seem more dangerous than they really are. Statistically, far more Americans die each year in car accidents than plane crashes, and reporting on sensational news obscures what is actually more dangerous. 

Stossel mentioned news media coverage of the crashes of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610, both of which occurred on the same model of Boeing jet, though he did not elaborate on the focus of those stories. Coverage in the New York Times has focused on the lack of oversight on Boeing in regulating the safety controls of their jets.

Following the lecture, Stossel fielded questions about his presentation. Many students, including Sam Charnizon ’19, asked Stossel to clarify the stances he outlined in his lecture. Charnizon said he felt the chart Stossel presented about OSHA accidents was “disingenuous” because the accidents were only being measured by fatalities. Charnizon paraphrased Stossel’s argument as “‘I would rather … let [people] die than ask the government to try to make [workplace environments] better through regulations.’ To me, that seems archaic,” he added. “Can you please explain why allowing people to die is a better idea than trying to use government regulation?”

“Because perfect isn’t one of the choices,” Stossel replied. “And people will die as life moves forward. Now, the question is, what will lead to the fewest deaths over time? There’s just no evidence that government will, and the money it takes will cause more deaths.” 

Another student asked if Stossel thought privatized healthcare was an example of a “market failure” where business alone was unable to effectively deliver affordable health care to consumers. Stossel said it was not a market failure, but rather a sign that government subsidies have made healthcare more expensive and complicated in the United States.

—Editor's Note: Trevor Filseth ’20 is a senior staff writer for the Justice.