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MORE UNDERHANDED REPORTING FROM ABC NEWS

by JVE Wednesday, Jun. 27, 2001 at 2:48 PM

Stossel is now gearing up for another attack on greens, this time in the form of a screed against environmental education. The program is reportedly scheduled to air on Friday, June 29, 2001. According to educators and parents whose children were interviewed for the show, Stossel has once again allowed his beliefs to interfere with his journalistic duties.

MORE UNDERHANDED REPORTING FROM ABC NEWS

The Story Behind John Stossel's Latest Attack on Environmentalism

Marianne Manilov is a writer living in San Francisco. She is currently working on her first book about the human rights activist, Ka Hsaw Wa. She is a senior consultant with the group We Interrupt This Message.



John Stossel is back in action. Stossel is a commentator on ABC's "20/20," where he devotes much of his time to railing against government regulations. According to FreeMarket.net, Stossel is "one of the libertarian movement's most valuable proponents." His staunch libertarian perspective influences much of his commentary, sometimes to the detriment of its accuracy.

Last summer, Stossel attacked the organic food industry using fabricated and distorted scientific studies. His fans sprang to his defense, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank, even sponsored a website in his honor, SaveJohnStossel.com.

Stossel is now gearing up for another attack on greens, this time in the form of a screed against environmental education. The program is reportedly scheduled to air on Friday, June 29, 2001. According to educators and parents whose children were interviewed for the show, Stossel has once again allowed his beliefs to interfere with his journalistic duties.

Stossel's Sudden Arrival

An environmental educator, who was present for Stossel's interviews with children and was also interviewed himself, is concerned about Stossel's tactics.

John Quigley is the executive director of Earth Day Los Angeles. In April, he hosted a field day for 2,000 kids to teach them about clean energy solutions. The day's events were filmed by Debbie Colloton, one of Stossel's producers.

"We had an educational experience where everything was solar-powered at the event," Quigley said. "There were local presentation areas that were solar-powered. Kids learned about clean transportation and about things they can do in their homes."

Colloton also visited an elementary school to interview kids. She subsequently arranged for 10 children, grades two through five, to be taped in a studio setting as they talked about the environment.

Colloton never mentioned Stossel's involvement with the project. "We still didn't think anything," Quigley said. "We just didn't know. We thought Debbie Colloton was going to do the interviews for her ABC documentary."

Quigley was wrong, however, because about five minutes before taping, John Stossel showed up. "Debbie Colloton announces that Stossel will be interviewing the kids," Quigley said. "It didn't raise a red flag because all I knew was that he was a commentator for ABC. It did seem odd that his name was never mentioned at all and all of a sudden he shows up."

Stossel interviewed the kids for about 30 minutes on environmental topics before showing his agenda, Quigley said.

"He started asking leading questions and it was very clear what he wanted to get," Quigley said. "He would say, 'Wow, it's really scary, isn't it?' And the kids weren't scared at all and so they just looked at him. He asked that question repeatedly."

According to Quigley, Stossel was having a hard time getting what he wanted. "These were bright kids, and they were responding well. He was clearly trying to elicit certain responses on tape. When he didn't get the verbal response he wanted, he had the crew shoot from behind and had the students raise their hands while he asked, 'Is the air getting dirtier or cleaner?' It was clear that he wasn't interested in honest dialogue but was trying to elicit certain responses for a script he had already written."

Although Quigley was bothered, he thought Stossel was just asking tough questions. He agreed to tape a discussion with Stossel and fellow educators the following Monday.

About 30 minutes into the interview with educators, Stossel changed the tone from a round-table discussion to an attack. "He proceeded to attack the elementary school teachers, telling them, 'You're scaring these kids,' " Quigley said. "At one point he raised his voice and was yelling it, 'You're scaring these kids,' but this time, like it was a dramatic performance for TV, he said over his shoulder, 'That was over the top.' The impression I got was that he was telling the cameraman that this wasn't to be used."

Quigley said Stossel tried to get the group to fight back, but the group didn't take the bait. "For the most of the attack," Quigley said, "the six of us were stunned. We tried to bring it back to a dialogue. We responded as best we could given the circumstances."

He worries that the footage will be edited to support Stossel's agenda. "He would have to be a very dark force to turn that footage into something else."

Quigley is not alone. On June 25th, parents of the children who were interviewed wrote to John Stossel and revoked their consent for their children to appear in the piece. "Some of us witnessed the interview you conducted with our children, and saw how you asked leading questions to get them to say what you wanted," the parents wrote.

Michael Scott, one of the parents who signed the letter, was present when his two children, Zachary, age 8, and Rachel, age 10, were interviewed. Scott said that he felt something was wrong when Stossel asked the children to answer in unison to questions.

According to Scott, Stossel asked the children if all scientists agree about the cause of global warming. "What he was looking for is for the kids to say, 'All scientists agree.'" Scott said Stossel also led the children to saying they were scared. "Prior to being asked in unison, no one said they were scared," Scott said. "Then Stossel said, 'This is pretty scary stuff, yeah?' and some of the kids agreed."

Scott thinks Stossel didn't do enough investigation to draw any conclusions. "A lot of information my son gets is from reading and not from school. He didn't ask, 'Did you learn that from your dad? Did you learn that from your friends?'" Scott said. "My son is 8 and he reads National Geographic. I'm amazed at the amount of information he has and I know he didn't get it all from school."

Brad Neal, another parent, is also angry. "He totally manipulated the interviewing process," Neal said. "He asked questions again and again until he got what he wanted. He used the word scared like 15 times. I kind of have to kick myself for not pulling out my kids right then."

Both Scott and Neal were contacted by Dawn Porter, Director of News Practices for ABC, yesterday when the letter was made public. Neal said that ABC would like to meet with the parents, but he is not sure he is interested. "I just asked Debbie Colloton, who was also on the phone, 'Why didn't you let us know it was Stossel? Why didn't you let us know what the piece was about?'"

Neal said that he just wants his kids out of the piece. "This is against everything I am teaching my kids," Neal said. "I'm teaching my kids to be honest, even when it's uncomfortable, to be forthright." Neal's children are Brandon, age 10, and Sam, age 8.

The Environmental Working Group, which previously went after Stossel for his report on organic food, coordinated the letter. EWG California Director Bill Walker said that Stossel's conduct violated the Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists. "It says that you are supposed to use special sensitivity when dealing with children," Walker said.

ABC released a statement yesterday denying that the interview was inappropriate. "While ABC News is confident that the interview was handled in a respectful and sensitive manner according to the highest journalistic standards, we take the concerns of these parents seriously and are reaching out to them to open a direct line of communication to resolve this issue," the statement said.

But ABC's version of events, as told through their public relations department, differs from the parents' account. "We didn't know that it was going to be 'controversial' until we went into the field and heard the kind of information that was being taught to the kids -- which turned out to be highly partisan and very one-sided. Our report will reflect exactly what we saw and heard," ABC's Jeffrey Schneider said.

Quigley disagrees. "It's going to be tough for Stossel and his crew to get what they wanted," he said. He's tried to explain what happened to the children. But, he says, "What they are learning is that they can't trust the media."

Shaping the Story

Although ABC says it went into the field with an open mind, there is evidence to the contrary.

In March -- a month before Stossel's producers turned up at Quigley's event -- a group called Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE) posted an email to their listserv. RISE serves as a pesticide industry front-group, according to Sheldon Rampton, editor of PR Watch. The email was a message from Michael Sanera, director of environmental education research at the Stossel fan club known as the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The email was later forwarded to environmentalists.

"I have been contacted by ABC News," Sanera wrote on March 20, 2001. "A producer for John Stossel is working on a program on environmental education. He needs examples of kids who have been 'scared green' by schools teaching doomsday environmentalism in the classroom. (He needs kids and/or parents to appear on camera.) I have some examples, but I need more. Would you send out a notice to your group and ask if they know of some examples."

Jeffrey Schneider, from ABC's public relations department, confirmed that Stossel's producer contacted Sanera about the environmental education story. Schneider also confirmed that Sanera had recommended that the producers contact a teacher named John Borowski, a supporter of environmental education.

Borowski teaches marine science and biology at North Salem High School in Oregon. He received a call from Ted Balaker and Debbie Colloton, Stossel's producers, on April 9, 2001. Balaker and Colloton told him that they were working on a documentary.

The call aroused his suspicions. Through his contacts in the environmental community, Borowski had already seen a copy of the email in which Sanera claimed to be working with Stossel's producer. However, when he asked Balaker and Colloton if they were working with Sanera, they said no. Borowski subsequently called Sanera. "He told me he was working with a producer named Ted Balaker on a program for John Stossel," Borowski said. "They lied to me."

ABC's Schneider says that the producers did not work with Sanera, despite appearances to the contrary. "The moment we became aware of his email, we demanded that he cease and desist," says Schneider. Sanera, he said, "played no role whatever in bringing this story to ABC News."

In a call with Balaker on April 12, Borowski asked if he was working with Stossel on the documentary, and Balaker said that he'd worked with Stossel in the past, but not on the current project. However, ABC says that Borowski was told that Stossel was involved in the project.

In the end, neither Sanera nor Borowski were interviewed for the documentary on environmental education.

Expecting More from ABC News

Is Stossel once again preparing to unleash a report based on his anti-environmental prejudices and deceptive interviewing tactics? Perhaps, but only the final piece will show. PR Watch's Sheldon Rampton thinks Stossel went too far.

"Deception is sometimes a justifiable journalistic tactic when exposing people who are engaged in fraud or other wrongdoing," Rampton said. "We are all familiar with the '60 Minutes' segments where a hidden camera and a false identity are used to catch someone on film lying to a reporter or offering to commit a crime. Stossel, however, has used deception to entrap schoolteachers. There is simply no justification for Stossel's decision to use deception and concealment when the sole purpose of that deception is to disguise his own editorial slant from the people he is interviewing."

On the ground in Los Angeles, John Quigley is upset. "There is a difference between journalism that is balanced and asks tough questions and so-called journalism where the story is sensationalized," he said. "This is a sensationalized approach, a Jerry Springer type mentality. You expect more from ABC News."

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