- The Washington Times - Friday, January 26, 2001

John Stossel became famous for investigating scams and rip-offs. Now ABC-TV's award-winning consumer reporter is ready to expose what might be the biggest scam of them all: the U.S. government.

In "John Stossel Goes to Washington" a one-hour special airing tomorrow at 10 p.m. on ABC's Washington affiliate, WJLA-TV, Channel 7 Mr. Stossel documents how billions of taxpayer dollars have been squandered on federal programs that don't solve the problems they were supposed to fix, and have arguably made those problems worse.

Despite such incompetence, Mr. Stossel shows, the federal government continues to expand its power and increase the tax burden on ordinary Americans.

It was not always so, the 52-year-old newsman points out.

"It think it's astounding for how long America's government was tiny," Mr. Stossel said in a telephone interview with The Washington Times.

The program traces the federal government's history back to the very beginning.

"The Founding Fathers never talked about a government giving people things," Mr. Stossel explains in the broadcast. "They said it should have limited duties, like running the post office, the courts and printing money. For 150 years, that's about all it did. The focus was on guaranteeing liberty."

The "explosive growth" of the federal government began nearly 70 years ago under President Roosevelt's New Deal, he explains. Since then, every administration has presided over an ever-larger government.

"It's only recently that it's grown so huge," Mr. Stossel said in the interview. "And it's grown huge under both Republicans and Democrats, and I think that is surprising to people."

The program its title a play on the classic Jimmy Stewart film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" began production about eight months ago, he explains.

"I was intending to air it before the election and to make the point that it might not matter whether Republicans or Democrats win, because historically government's only grown, under Republicans or Democrats."

Mr. Stossel won't speculate whether the delay of the broadcast until nearly three months after the November election airing in a late Saturday time slot indicates any hostility of ABC News executives toward the program's premise. Nor does Mr. Stossel complain about the scheduling.

"It's not my first choice, but that was the time they made available," he says of the network's decision. "I'm at least happy that they give me prime time."

Prime time has been good to Mr. Stossel. The son of immigrants, he grew up near Chicago, graduated from Princeton University in 1969 and began his television career in Portland, Ore., before becoming a consumer reporter for a New York City station.

In 1981, he joined the ABC newsmagazine show "20/20," where he has made his "Give Me a Break" reports a popular feature, looking on the positive side of negative political ads and casting a skeptical eye on everything from soy milk labels to the movie "Erin Brockovich."

Along the way, Mr. Stossel has won 19 Emmy awards, has been cited five times for excellence in consumer reporting by the National Press Club and won the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award.

Free-market competition a favorite theme of his reporting in recent years also has been good to Mr. Stossel. In 1993, when Fox network tried to lure Mr. Stossel away from ABC, he negotiated a new deal with ABC that gave him the freedom to produce a certain number of prime-time specials every year.

Those specials have won him both effusive praise and harsh criticism, beginning with his first hourlong special, "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?"

That initial 1994 show, which investigated public fears of pesticides and other health risks, prompted outrage from environmental activists. Longtime consumer advocate and recent Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader skewered in the program called Mr. Stossel "the most dishonest journalist I've ever encountered," while another activist told Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz that Mr. Stossel was "really a menace" who was "doing a massive amount of damage."

Undeterred by his critics, Mr. Stossel has continued to produce specials that take on the sacred totems of political correctness: gender equality ("Boys and Girls Are Different"), the victimhood industry ("The Blame Game") and population control ("Is America No. 1?").

While outraging some liberals, Mr. Stossel's iconoclastic reports have earned him laurels as well. World Net Daily called him a "propagandist for liberty," and the Palmer R. Chitester Fund a Pennsylvania-based educational philanthropy has developed a program called "Stossel in the Classroom" that helps teachers make his programs part of their curriculum.

"I just report what I see," Mr. Stossel says of his work, which he admits goes against the grain of most TV news reporting. "There are plenty of people in my business who despise me. I think it's an ideological thing. To report the point of view I do, many in my business consider that abhorrent, if not perverted."

His critics inside the TV news industry likely will howl at "John Stossel Goes to Washington."

"Washington has become a kind of grab bag," he says in the show's opening sequence. "Who pays for it all? You do: Joe Taxpayer."

Mr. Stossel interviews author Amity Schlaes, who says, "Americans pay more in taxes than we do in food, clothing and shelter combined." Chapman University philosophy professor Tibor Machan tells Mr. Stossel: "Government is never charitable, never generous, never benevolent, because what is involved in government giving is government taking."

From forest fires to airport congestion, Mr. Stossel shows how, in his words, "Often, the more the government helps, the worse things get."

He documents how, despite billions of dollars of federal aid over the decades, most American Indian tribes live in abject poverty. Mr. Stossel notes that the Interior Department is unable to account for more than $2 billion in tribal trust funds.

When Mr. Stossel attempts to ask Clinton administration Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt about such failures, Mr. Babbitt fumes, "I'm going to fire whoever scheduled this interview" and then walks out of the interview.

Clinton administration Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo also comes under scrutiny. Mr. Cuomo claimed to have personally provided housing aid to the poor, prompting Mr. Stossel to remark: "How arrogant. It's not Cuomo's money, it's your money."

Showing the demolition of public housing projects in Baltimore and elsewhere, Mr. Stossel says, "Our government destroys the very things they once held out as the solution," then profiles a private company that took over and renovated what was once a dilapidated government-run tenement.

"After years of consumer reporting, talking about business ripping people off a few hundred dollars at a time," he says of Saturday's show, "I thought I should focus on the people who rip us off for tens of thousands of dollars."

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