Famous for his "Give Me a Break" segments on ABC's "20/20" when he was co-anchor, John Stossel has won 19 Emmy Awards. He moved his contrarian point of view to the Fox Business Network in 2009. Not happy with the status quo, the Princeton grad went from a young liberal to a Libertarian and grew a mustache along the way.
He talks about that and more in his book "Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media," which was a New York Times best-seller in 2004. At 63 he continues to challenge both conservative and liberal wisdom, appearing on "The O'Reilly Factor" and hosting a weekly show called "Stossel" at 9 p.m. Thursdays.
Was there a reason you chose psychology as your major at Princeton?
I thought it would be interesting, and chemistry was too hard. I thought it would be interesting until I found it was all, "well, this could be the explanation for that, but so could this be the explanation." Nobody really knows anything, and I found that frustrating after awhile.
Were you brought up to appreciate capitalism?
My parents were immigrants from Germany who had no particular appreciation of capitalism. They spoke no English when they came here. My father cleaned toilets and repaired toilets and eventually started his own factory printing name towels. He exceeded in the American capitalist experience. But I was no big student of, or appreciator of, capitalism until I took the opposite tack after Princeton taught me that capitalism was a big problem and that government would help the poor. I watched as a reporter in Portland, Ore., first, and then a consumer reporter in New York, the failure of most government programs. I started getting interested in capitalism and free markets.
You have said that you were confused and Reason magazine began to change that. So what confused you?
I had grown up on The New York Times, and the liberal policies just no longer made sense to me. So then I turned to the conservative papers like the National Review. I didn't agree with them either. I was confused that no popular political magazine seemed to present an argument that made sense to me until I discovered Reason. Then it was, "Oh my God, these people really get it." I finally found my place.
So it wasn't a particular incident that turned you?
No, in my book "Give Me a Break" there is a chapter called "Epiphany," which is somewhat misleading in that it was a slow epiphany. I watched and I'd see consumers ripped off and a government agency created to fix the problem. Five years later I saw they didn't make a dent in the problem. It just made everything cost more and created more busy work for bureaucrats and lawyers and more paperwork to make it harder for an entrepreneur to enter that industry. I kept watching that happen, and I slowly realized that competition solves it better than top-down planning.
Recently George Clooney was featured with Ann Curry trying to shed light on the instability of Sudan. Do you think the power of celebrity is effective in changing things?
I just don't know. I hesitate to comment on what I haven't researched and reported on. It can't hurt. Certainly seeing Angelina Jolie give of her own money rather than Bono, who demands taxpayer money be given to people in the Third World, it's a good example. I hope it influences people to go try to help, but our track record of helping in the Third World has been miserable. We've poured in billions and billions of dollars, and some argue that by doing that we just propped up the bad governments that cause the problem and make the problem worse. So this is very hard to measure.
It's hard to follow the money once it gets there, and that's part of the problem.
Often it goes to Switzerland, where it goes in secret bank accounts and goes to build mansions and buy luxury cars.
How often when you have researched a story have you been swayed to a different conclusion than the one you expected?
It happens now and then. One consumer report, the New York Daily News had done a story on how vets would tell people their animals had things they didn't have and overcharge them. So I took my cat to 17 different vets, and nobody overcharged me [chuckles]. So I go on the air and say, "Oops, my assumption was wrong, and three cheers for all these honest vets." But since I have gotten a little smarter about free markets I rarely get surprised. Generally, the market does things better, and I don't see much evidence that contradicts that.
What about the subprime mortgage mess. Was it just greed and mistakes being made? Or should there have been more regulation?
Well, I reject the two choices you offer me because greed is a constant. There are always greedy people, and I would argue that most people are greedy in the sense that most people want to make as much profit for themselves as they can. The subprime bubble was caused by a government that threw money at homeowners and offered all kinds of special deals. Government guarantees of loans from Fannie and Freddie encouraged them [banks] to make loans, and they continue to make more of them with only 3 percent or less down. So government policies were like gasoline being thrown on the constant fire of greed. Then you get a bubble and a bubble pops. Even now they are continuing to try to prop up housing prices rather than let them reach a natural floor that the free market would dictate.
So home ownership for all was the dream that drove it.
And it was a logical assumption of the central planners. When George Bush and others before and after him said, "If you own a home you take better care of it." That's good for communities and that's good for America, but by artificially pushing that from Washington they created a bubble.
What prompted your move to Fox? Was it more money or artistic difference or something else?
Artistic differences. ABC, if you watch "20/20" now, you see the kinds of stories they do. It's about horrible things that happen to children and kidnappings and murder. My interest is economic freedom. I had done a show called "Stupid in America" about the government education monopoly, and it even rated unusually well. I wanted to do more of that, and they were just not interested. My subjects just kept getting postponed. I was not wooed by Fox. I went to Fox and begged them to hire me [laughs] and to give me an opportunity to do the work I wanted to do.
ABC used to like the idea that you offered a different perspective. What do you think changed?
The executive producer of "20/20" just wanted to do the stories he wanted to do, and while some people at ABC liked it, a lot of the people didn't like that I had a different perspective.
Do you see yourself as a contrarian?
Yes, I guess [laughing]. I've been called it enough. Or an iconoclast or someone who's discovered the benefits of less government. In the media that's contrarian.
Were you always that way, even as a child?
No, I was a shy kid who stuttered, who wanted to fit in. I mastered it. I finally found a clinic that helped me.
Why isn't the Libertarian Party stronger politically?
America has historically been a two-party country, and many people don't know what the word Libertarian means. They think it means libertine. That because we don't want laws trying and failing to stop drug use or prostitution, that we support those things. People haven't yet learned about it.
Even with [Libertarian] Ron Paul being a candidate?
I think you know because you work for a newspaper, but I would say most Americans don't yet really know who Ron Paul is and the mainstream media present him as an oddball. When I vote Libertarian ... it's my way of saying I don't support what the Republicans and Democrats have done.
About your mustache. You've said you grew it to look older, but now you are older. So what would it take for you to shave it off?
[Laughing.] Somebody offering a major charity gift to a group that I liked [laughing]. I'm told from the last time I shaved it off that I look better with it. So as long as I'm on television and how I look matters, I better keep it.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2613.