No formal training in the industry and a worldview opposite that of the decision-makers and managers – so just exactly how did John Stossel get into broadcasting?
Opportunity and hard work, he tells Burt Prelutsky in a new book, “Portraits of Success: Candid Conversations with 60 Over-Achievers.”
Prelutsky interviewed dozens of actors, athletes, politicians, developers, musicians, entrepreneurs and others who have won Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, Grammys – even a Pulitzer and a Cy Young.
One chapter is about Stossel.
“There are very few reasons for anyone to tune in to the network newsmagazine shows,” Prelutsky writes. “Most of the stories they cover are tawdry attempts to out-sleaze the tabloid press. Among the very few exceptions are those reports on ABC’s ’20/20′ by John Stossel. One could easily get the idea that he is the only person working at a major network who isn’t a cardcarrying, anti-business Socialist.
“I had assumed that in spite of appearing to be bright and likeable, he must be the loneliest guy in New York City. I was right,” he says.
Others interviewed include Ambassador John Bolton, Pat Boone, Carl Reiner, Pat Sajak, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Charles Krauthammer, Gary Sinise, WND founder Joseph Farah, Karl Malden, John Zogby and dozens more.
Prelutsky, a humor columnist and TV screenwriter, has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, “Dragnet,” “MASH,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Bob Newhart” and “Dr. Quinn.” He also has written or co-authored nine books.
Here is Burt Prelutsky’s interview with John Stossel:
Q. I’ve read that you suffered from stuttering when you were young.
How did you overcome it?
A. Actually, I haven’t overcome it. Very few ever really do. When I was a
kid, I attended speech camp and went to some speech clinics. It was
only later, when I attended the Hollins Communications Research
Institute in Roanoke, Va., that I got better.
Q. How was it that you even considered getting into broadcasting?
A. I didn’t. I attended Princeton, majoring in psychology, but I found it didn’t appeal to me. It was too vague. It was too much a case of things
being on one hand or being on the other hand. I really thought I might
get into hospital management, but that would have meant even more school, and I hated school. Instead, I went on every job interview that
was offered. One job that was offered to me was in Portland, Ore.,
as a TV reporter. I’d never even taken a journalism course, and I certainly
never watched TV news. But I liked the job. Work turned out to
be much better than school. For one thing, they paid you.
Q. How did you manage to overcome your stuttering?
A. To begin with, I wasn’t on air. But they kept pushing me. Also, as most
stutterers will tell you, when you’re singing or acting a part, the problem
pretty much goes away. So when they forced me to go on camera
because I was the only one available, it was as if I was playing the role
of a reporter. But if I knew I was going to be on the air, I’d wake up
frightened in the morning. Fortunately, someone told me about the
Hollins Institute and that really helped.
Q. What did your parents think about your getting into broadcasting?
A. My parents were German immigrants, and they weren’t crazy about
it. My mom said, “Why are you in this business with jugglers and
clowns? Why aren’t you an engineer?”
Q. What is the best advice you ever got?
A. Again, it was my mom who said, “Work hard, or you’ll freeze in the
dark.” I took that to mean I should always work very hard.
Q. What was the worst advice?
A. Probably my mom’s telling me I’d freeze in the dark if I didn’t work
very hard. I don’t think it’s really a good idea to encourage people by
trying to scare them to death. Also, I once took one of those aptitude
tests, and it was determined that I should be a farmer or an engineer.
I’ve done a little bit of both, and I’d be awful at either.
Q. Although I know that some people consider you a conservative, I happen
to know you regard yourself as a libertarian. Does that make you
any less of an outcast at ABC?
A. Not really. Now that I’m established, things aren’t quite as bad as they
used to be. And I occasionally come across like-minded people in the
business, but they still tend to be pretty covert.
Q. What book or books have most influenced you?
A. Searching for Safety by Aaron Wildavsky and Charles Murray’s Pursuit
of Happiness and Good Government. The first helped me put risks in
perspective. The second makes the point that big government hurts
far more people than it helps.
Q. Has your political perspective changed over time?
A. Absolutely. I was a plain vanilla liberal who believed everything I
heard from my wise professors at Princeton. But I kept seeing liberalism
Q. Was there an epiphany for you?
A. No, it was a slow process, but I’d say I became a libertarian about fifteen,
maybe twenty years ago.
Q. Do you have a favorite movie?
A. Pan’s Labyrinth.
A. I guess most people mention a Humphrey Bogart movie.
Q. Yes, Casablanca gets mentioned a lot. What was it about Pan’s Labyrinth
that you liked so much?
A. It stimulated my imagination.
Q. Frankly, I’m surprised that you’ve won nineteen Emmys. Not that you
don’t deserve them, but I find it amazing that your colleagues have
been able to get past your politics and acknowledge your talent.
A. I should probably mention that I haven’t won a single Emmy since I
began speaking out against federal regulations.
Q. No doubt just a coincidence.
A. No doubt.
Q. Have you lost friends as a result of your political shift?
A. Some. But I still have friends, including a Marxist, with whom I’m
able to argue. The fact is, 99 percent of my friends are liberals because
that’s the sea I swim in.
Q. If you had to choose between writing and broadcasting, which would
A. Fortunately, my work calls for me to do both. What I write becomes
the broadcast. But if I could only do one, it would probably be broadcasting.
It pays better.
Q. How important is money to you?
A. Very important. When I was young, money was very scarce, and,
frankly, I was cheap. In my first job, I made $6,000-a-year, and I managed
to save some. When I was in college, I spent two months in Germany,
and I lived on twenty-five cents a day. Wait, that can’t be right.
I guess I ate on twenty-five cents a day. But as I began to give speeches,
it didn’t feel right to keep the money, so I gave it away to charity. Now,
I give $500,000 a year to charities.
Q. How do you decide on the charities?
A. I give to those I think do good work and those I can keep my eye on.
Q. Do you think you’ve been a good father?
A. I do. People assume that they are intuitively good parents, but they’re
mistaken. For instance, I had to learn something called “catch your
kids doing something right.” It drives me nuts when I see a parent
screaming at his kid in public. What I learned is that you should make
five positive comments to your child for every negative comment. It’s
the best technique I ever heard of for getting through to them because
they’re so much less likely to simply tune you out. If you make a habit
of saying something nice about them, when you do correct them
they’re far likelier to pay attention.
Q. Which of the many issues you’ve dealt with on 20/20 has garnered you
the greatest amount of negative feedback?
A. Well, school choice certainly pissed off the teachers’ union, and anytime
I defend capitalism, I get a lot of angry letters from the left. They’re
convinced that capitalism is a zero-sum game, that if someone is getting
rich it must be at the expense of somebody else getting poor.
Q. What about global warming? Unlike most folks in the mainstream
media, you don’t seem to take it as an article of faith.
A. I just say that, contrary to what you read in the press, man may not
have any influence on global warming. I’m not even convinced that
global warming is necessarily a bad thing. But I do believe that things
like driving a Prius and changing your light bulbs are tiny, essentially
Q. Do you have time for hobbies?
A. I love beach volleyball. During the winter, I play once a week. During
the summer, I play more often.
Q. Is there anyone in the world you envy?
A. Karch Kiraly. He’s a champion beach volleyball player.
Q. In one of your books, I read that you and your wife were at a dinner
party and that everyone at the table was piling on you over some issue
and that even Mrs. Stossel joined in and that you threw a piece of
cake at her.
Q. Are you still married?
A. We just celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary.
Q. Is she still picking on you?
a. She began coming around, starting about ten years ago.
Q. Are you religious?
A. Not really. I envy the peace and sense of purpose that religious people
have, but I don’t have it. I was raised Congregationalist, but I was
biologically Jewish. But my parents didn’t tell me until I was about
Q. What took them so long?
A. They claimed they had told me earlier, but that I had forgotten. It doesn’t seem very likely. I suspect they converted because, as German
Jewish refugees, they just wanted to assimilate.
Q. I once knew of an obnoxious Hollywood writer-producer who hadn’t
been aware that he was Jewish until, in his thirties, he went to his
uncle’s funeral and found that a rabbi was conducting the service. His
reaction was to tell people, “I always suspected that’s why I was so
smart and had such a great sense of humor.” What was your reaction
to the news?
A. I was just shocked.
Q. What would you say is the secret to your success?
A. I never went to journalism school, so I never learned what I couldn’t
do. Also, I have a very short attention span and that helps in TV
because I figure if I start getting bored, the audience will start getting
Q. How would you like to be remembered?
A. As a nice guy, a smart guy, who tried to educate people about liberty.