In his latest book, "Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity," John Stossel expands on his popular "Myth" segments on "20/20" and unearths truths often distorted -- or disregarded -- by the media. Below is an excerpt:
Thomas Jefferson said he'd rather live in a country with a free press and no government, than in one with a government but no press. "The only security of all is in a free press," he wrote. "It is necessary, to keep the waters pure."
I couldn't agree more. Without media to tell us about the excesses of government, the risks of life, and the wonderful new ideas that emerge constantly from every cranny in America, our lives would be narrow, and our freedom diminished. The Fourth Estate both informs and protects us. "Where the press is free, and every man able to read," said Jefferson, "all is safe."
However, thirty-six years working in the media has left me much more skeptical of its product. Reporters are good at telling us what happened today: what buildings burned down, what army invaded, the size of the hurricane that's coming. Many reporters take astonishing risks to bring us this news. We owe them thanks.
But when it comes to science and economics, and putting life's risks in perspective, the media do a dismal job.
MYTH: The media will check it out and give you the objective truth.
TRUTH: Many in the media are scientifically clueless, and will scare you to death. We don't do it on purpose. We just want to give you facts. But the people who bring us story ideas are alarmed. Then we get alarmed, and eager to rush that news to you.
We know that the scarier and more bizarre the story, the more likely it is that our bosses will give us more air time or a front-page slot. The scary story, justified or not, will get higher ratings and sell more papers. Fear sells. That's the reason for the insiders' joke about local newscasts: "If it bleeds, it leads."
Also, raising alarms makes us feel important.
If we bothered to keep digging until we found the better scientific experts, rather than the ones who send out press releases, we'd get the real story. But reporters rarely know whom to call. And if we did, many real scientists don't want to be bothered. Why get involved in a messy debate? It might upset someone in government and threaten the scientist's grant money. "I'd rather be left alone to do my work, and not have to babysit dumb reporters," one told me.
One real scientist, Dr. Bruce Ames of the University of California, Berkeley, did make the effort. He urged a skeptical reporter (me) to be more skeptical of pseudologic from pseudoscientists: "The number of storks in Europe has been going down for years, the birth rate's going down for years," Dr. Ames pointed out. "If you plot one against the other, it's a beautiful correlation. But it doesn't mean storks bring babies."
We've been swallowing the storks-bring-babies kind of logic for years. (My favorite version: I see fat people drinking diet soda; therefore diet soda must make people fat.) For instance, stories about pesticides making food carcinogenic would fill several pages of a Google search. To the scientifically illiterate, the stories are logical. After all, farmers keep using new pesticides, we consume them in the food we eat, and we keep hearing more people are getting cancer. It must be cause and effect! Get the shovel.
MYTH: Pesticide residues in food cause cancer and other diseases.
TRUTH: The residues are largely harmless.
Ames laughs at the claims of chemically induced cancers, and he should know-he's the one who invented the test that first frightened people about a lot of those chemicals. It's called the Ames Test, and its first use in the 1970s raised alarms by revealing there were carcinogens in hair dye, and in the flame retardants in children's pajamas. Ames helped get the chemicals banned.
Before the Ames Test, the traditional way to test a substance was to feed big doses of it to animals and wait to see if they got cancer or had babies with birth defects. But those tests took two to three years and cost $100,000. So Dr. Ames said, "Instead of testing animals, why not test bacteria? You can study a billion of them on just one Petri dish and you don't have to wait long for the next generation. Bacteria reproduce every twenty minutes."
The test proved successful. It was hailed as a major scientific breakthrough, and today, the Ames Test is one of the standards used to discover if a substance is carcinogenic.
But after getting the hair dye and the flame retardants banned, Dr. Ames and other scientists continued testing chemicals. "People started using our test," he told me, "and finding mutagens everywhere-in cups of coffee, on the outside of bread, and when you fry your hamburger!"
This made him wonder if his tests were too sensitive, and led him to question the very bans he'd advocated. A few years later, when I went to a supermarket with him, he certainly didn't send out any danger signals.
DR. AMES Practically everything in the supermarket, if you really looked at it at the parts per billion level, would have carcinogens. Vegetables are good for you, yet vegetables make toxic chemicals to keep off insects, so every vegetable is 5 percent of its weight in toxic chemicals. These are Nature's pesticides. Celery, alfalfa sprouts, and mushrooms are just chock-full of carcinogens.
STOSSEL Over there it says "Organic Produce." Is that better?
DR. AMES No, absolutely not, because the amount of pesticide residues-man-made pesticide residues-people are eating are actually trivial and very, very tiny amounts! We get more carcinogens in a cup of coffee than we do in all the pesticide residues you eat in a day.
In a cup of coffee? To put the risks in perspective, Ames and his staff analyzed the results of every cancer test done on rats and mice. By comparing the dose that gave the rodents cancer to the typical exposure people get, they came up with a ranking of the danger. Pesticides such as DDT and EDB came out much lower than herb tea, peanut butter, alcohol, and mushrooms. We moved over to the mushrooms as the cameras continued to roll, and Dr. Ames put his mouth where his convictions were.
DR. AMES One raw mushroom gives you much more carcinogens than any polluted water you're going to drink in a day.
STOSSEL So you're saying we shouldn't eat fresh produce?
DR. AMES No. Fresh produce is good for you! Here, I'll eat a raw mushroom even though it's full of carcinogens.
Dr. Ames is widely respected in the scientific community, but he is not on many journalists' electronic Rolodexes. He's the real deal, and no help at all if you're looking for screaming headlines.
MYTH: Radioactivity is deadly; keep it away from food!
TRUTH: Food irradiation saves lives.
A classic example of journalists falling for a stunningly stupid scientific scare-falling en masse and really hard-was the outcry over treating food with radiation.
The irradiation process would give consumers wonderful new options: strawberries that stay fresh three weeks, and chicken without the harmful levels of salmonella that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says kill six hundred Americans every year, and cause countless cases of food poisoning. (The last time you thought you had the flu, you may have really been sick from bacteria on chicken-this is no myth! Wash the counter, your hands, and everything that touches raw meat, because they are all crawling with potentially dangerous germs.)
But reporters and environmental activists don't worry much about the horrible toll from bacteria. For some reason, even when bacteria pose a far greater risk, the media obsess about chemicals and radiation. Radiation! Horrors! Three Mile Island! Jane Fonda! Nuclear bombs!
They don't worry much about bacteria because bacteria is natural. But radiation is natural too. We are exposed to natural radiation every minute of our lives: cosmic radiation from space, radiation from the ground, and radiation from radon in the air we breathe. Every year, the average U.S. citizen is exposed to natural radiation equal to about 360 dental X-rays.
The reporters and protesters probably didn't know that, but even if they did, they'd still be upset because irradiation plants propose passing radiation through food. News stories featured Dr. Walter Burnstein, founder of a "consumer group" named Food & Water, saying, "This will be a public health disaster of the magnitude we have never seen before!" I have to admire the activists' skill in naming groups: Food & Water. What reporter could argue with a group with a name like that? They must be the good guys, right? I interviewed Dr. Burnstein and his "political organizer," Michael Colby.
MR. COLBY If you look at the existing studies on humans and animals fed irradiated food, you will find testicular tumors, chromosomal abnormalities, kidney damage, and cancer and birth defects.
STOSSEL Caused because somebody ate irradiated food?
MR. COLBY Absolutely. Absolutely.
STOSSEL [Food & Water claimed an Indian study had said that, but we called the author and she told us she didn't conclude that at all.] We just talked to her and she says she didn't say that! She never said those kids were developing cancer.
DR. BURNSTEIN These are pure scientists and she doesn't want to make that break. We are taking it the extra inch. We're saying to people, "Don't-don't be put to sleep by people who work in test tubes-don't." I don't need proof that it goes to cancer. We already know it leads to cancer.
Reporters gave Burnstein and Colby's dubious claims so much credulous press coverage that politicians in Maine quickly banned food irradiation. New York and New Jersey followed suit. That spread fear to other states. I went to Mulberry, Florida, to report on a protest against Vindicator, a plant that proposed using radiation to kill germs on strawberries. When I got there, demonstrators were marching with picket signs, chanting, "Don't nuke our food! Don't nuke our food!" Their campaign persuaded the state of Florida to put a moratorium on Vindicator's opening.
DR. BURNSTEIN Vindicator will go out of business, and not only Vindicator. That'll be the end of the entire irradiation industry ... When we go to talk to people, we don't have to break their arms to convince them not to eat irradiated food. We just say, "Irradiated food," and people go, "What? Who wants the food irradiated?"
The fact that Dr. Burnstein was not a research scientist, but rather an osteopath with a family practice in New Jersey, didn't diminish the respect he got from the media. His protests drew headlines and TV coverage. Reporters knew radiation was bad for humans, and therefore bad for food.
One woman stood outside the Vindicator plant shouting angrily, "How much pollution are we going to put into our mouths?!"
"None," is the answer. People think food irradiation makes food radioactive, but it doesn't; the radiation just kills the bacteria, and passes right out of the food. That's why the FDA and USDA approved the process a long time ago. Spices have been irradiated for more than twenty years. Irradiation is good for us. If it were more common, all of us would suffer fewer instances of food poisoning and we could have fruits and vegetables that stay fresh weeks longer. But scaremongering has kept it from catching on.
Food & Water told people that the AMA and the World Health Organization did not approve of irradiation, but that was a lie. Both organizations did approve. WHO told us irradiation is as important as pasteurization.
Pasteurization also met public skepticism when it was introduced. Louis Pasteur discovered that heating milk would kill bacteria, but critics charged that pasteurization was "meddling with nature," and that it might change the properties of the food-or contaminate it. The U.S. dairy industry actually promoted raw milk as more acceptable than pasteurized milk. Only the persistence of scientists and medical experts allowed pasteurization to become standard practice. Irradiation might save as many lives, if the scaremongers would just get out of the way. After three years of delays, the Vindicator plant finally was allowed to open. But fear of radiation has kept this good idea from spreading across America. Only a tiny fraction of American meat is irradiated today.
If 50 percent were irradiated, the CDC says nearly a million cases of bacterial infections could be avoided and 350 lives could be saved every year. 350 lives! Why isn't the press screaming about that? Because reporters and legislators look for danger in the wrong places.
Many reporters believe the activists because "something must be causing the cancer epidemic." Mysterious and unnatural additions to our environment are an easy suspect. After all, during the past fifty years, Americans have been exposed to chemicals and forms of pollution and radiation that humans have never experienced before. "No wonder there's so much more cancer!" say reporters. Get the shovel.
MYTH: Chemical pollution is the cause of the cancer epidemic!
TRUTH: There is no cancer epidemic.
You wouldn't know it from the media, but there has been no surge in cancers. The death rate due to cancer has been declining for more than ten years. You might argue that fewer die from cancer today simply because there are better treatments for the disease, but look at the cancer incidence rate.
The incidence of prostate and breast cancer is up, but that's only because there's more early detection. In the 1980s more men starting getting PSA tests, and more women had mammograms. Lung cancer increased in women because more women took up cigarettes, and skin cancer increased because of lunatic sunbathing. But overall cancer rates have not been rising, and lots of cancers, like stomach, uterine, and colorectal cancer, are on the decline.
We think there's a cancer epidemic because we hear more about cancer. Cancer is a disease of an aging population, and fortunately, more people now live long enough to get cancer. More talk about it too. Many years ago people who got cancer were secretive about it.
The other big reason we think there is an epidemic is that the media, suspicious of chemicals, hype dubious risks.
Almost every week, there is another story about a potential menace. Reporters credulously accept the activists' scare stores: While I've been a reporter, I've been asked to do alarmist reports about hair dye, dry cleaning, coffee, chewing gum, saccharin, cyclamates, NutraSweet, nitrites, Red No. 2 dye, electric blankets, video display terminals, dental fillings, cellular phones, vaccines, potato chips, farmed salmon, Teflon, antiperspirants, and even rubber duckies.
I refused to do most of those stories, and now I have to ask, if the scares were valid, where are the bodies? If one-tenth of what the reporters suggested was happening did happen, there would be mass death. The opposite is true: Despite exposure to radiation and all those nasty new chemicals, Americans today live longer than ever.
The media hysteria may be nonsense, but our fear is real-and contagious. That can be deadly.
MYTH: DDT causes all kinds of cancers, and nearly wiped out every bird in the world.
TRUTH: DDT saves lives.
Malaria will kill more than one thousand children before you finish reading this book. The chemical DDT is at the core of the problem-not the use of DDT, but the failure to use it because of media hysteria. In Uganda alone, said minister of health Jim Muhwezi, "We are losing between two million and three million people a year." Think of it: Millions die because the media gets it wrong.
You are probably saying, "What is he talking about? DDT is awful!" But it isn't. DDT is capable of doing far more good than harm. You just don't know that, because some people, including reporters, are terrified of DDT.
Here's how it happened: Fifty years ago, Americans sprayed DDT everywhere. Farmers used it to repel bugs, and health officials to fight mosquitoes that carry malaria. Nobody worried much about chemicals then. It was a shock to watch the old videos my producer found: People at picnics just sat and kept eating while trucks sprayed thick white clouds of DDT on top of them. In fact, when the trucks came to spray, some people ran toward them-as if an ice cream truck had come-they were so happy to have mosquitoes repelled. Tons of DDT were sprayed on food and people.
Despite this overuse, there was no surge in cancer or any other human injury. Scientists found no evidence that spraying DDT seriously hurt people. It did cause some harm: It threatened bird populations by thinning the shells of their eggs.
In 1962, the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson made the damage famous and helped instill our fear of chemicals. The book raised some serious questions about the use of DDT, but the legitimate nature of those questions was lost in the media feeding frenzy that followed. DDT was a "Killer Chemical!" and the press was off on another fear campaign.
It turns out DDT itself wasn't the problem-the problem was that much too much was sprayed. That's often true with chemicals; it's the dose that matters. We need water, for example, but six feet of it will kill us.
In the 1950s we sprayed DDT indiscriminately, but it only takes a tiny amount to prevent the spread of malaria. If sprayed on walls of an African hut, a small amount will keep mosquitoes at bay for half a year. That makes it a wonderful malaria fighter. But today DDT is rarely used to fight malaria because environmentalists' demonization of it causes others to shun it.
That frustrates Dr. Amir Attaran, who researched the issue at Harvard University. "If it's a chemical, it must be bad," he told us. "If it's DDT, it must be awful. And that's fine if you're a rich white environmentalist. It's not so fine if you're a poor black kid who is about to lose his life from malaria." Uganda's health minister angrily asked us: "How many people do they want us to lose before we use DDT?" Good question.
The U.S. government does spend your tax dollars trying to fight malaria in Africa, but it has not spent a penny on DDT. The money goes for things like mosquito netting over beds (even though not everyone in Africa even has a bed). The office that dispenses those funds, the Agency for International Development, acknowledges DDT is safe.
I went to the State Department to interview the USAID official in charge of international health. With a straight face, she denied that their no-funds-for-DDT policy had anything to do with being "environmentally correct." I felt like I was talking to a robot.
DR. ANNE PETERSON I would recommend that if those who want to use [DDT for] indoor spraying, that they can and should. And it is definitely less harmful than dying and being exposed to malaria.
STOSSEL But you won't pay for it?
DR. ANNE PETERSON Currently we don't pay for it.
STOSSEL This is pathetic. Millions of people are dying and you, to be politically correct, are saying, "No, we don't want to pay for DDT."
DR. ANNE PETERSON I believe that the strategies we are using are as effective as spraying with DDT. And we are getting them out as far and as fast as we can. So, politically correct or not, I am very confident that what we are doing is the right strategy.
The right strategy? Dr. Attaran has a better perspective: "If I were to characterize what USAID does on malaria, I'd call it medical malpractice. I would call it murderous."
After my interview with Dr. Peterson, USAID said it has reconsidered its policy, and it may fund spraying of DDT.
We'll see. For now, millions die while USAID dithers.
The agency was simply responding to media hysteria. Media hysteria invites politicians to do the wrong thing. In this case, the result of the media getting it so wrong is millions of deaths.
Media attention also kills reputations, particularly when sensationalism and the herd mentality are in play. Serious subjects, worthy of careful examination, are often treated with a kind of journalistic shorthand that cheats readers and viewers, while ruining lives. In this next example, innocent children became unknowing pawns.
MYTH: "My teacher molested me." Kids wouldn't make up stuff like that!
TRUTH: Yes, they would.
This trendy media scare sent people to jail. Many were innocent of any crime, but they were convicted by the court of public opinion. The witnesses against them were children who testified to horrible events-events which, in many cases, never happened. But when the media express gets rolling, people get run over.
One victim was Kelly Michaels, a New Jersey preschool teacher convicted in 1988 of molesting twenty children in bizarre and sadistic ways. She spent five years in prison before an appeals court ruled that prosecutors had planted suggestions in the minds of the children who testified against her.
I don't blame the kids; I blame the prosecutors and the media. Reporters' imaginations and keyboards were fired up in 1983 by accusations of sodomy and satanic abuse at a California day-care center called the McMartin Preschool. The woman who started the barrage of charges was later discovered to be a paranoid schizophrenic. Her claims of devil-worship and sadism were outlandish on their face, but never mind: It was "good copy." Headlines blared, prosecutors roared, and seven people were charged in a total of 135 criminal counts.
It was nonsense. But the defendants had their lives ruined. The case against them was cooked up by therapists and social workers who planted suggestions in the minds of impressionable children, who then told horrendous tales to prosecutors. The prosecutors also listened to the drumbeats of the media, which stirred a different witches' brew for every news cycle.
Kids are highly impressionable. We know that, but psychology professor Stephen Ceci proved it in a study at Cornell University. He told me, "We are now discovering that if you put kids who were not abused through the same kind of highly leading, repetitive interview, some of those children will disclose events that seem credible but, in fact, are not borne out in actuality."
Ceci set up an experiment where he and his researchers asked kids silly questions like:
RESEARCHER Have you ever had your finger caught in a mousetrap and had to go to the hospital?
At first, the kids say no. Then, once a week for the next 10 weeks, the researchers ask the question again.
RESEARCHER You went to the hospital because your finger got caught in a mousetrap?
BOY And it- RESEARCHER Did that happen?
By week four or six or ten, about half of the kids say, "Yes, it happened." Many give such precise information that you'd think it must have happened.
RESEARCHER Did it hurt?
RESEARCHER Yeah? Who took you to the hospital?
BOY My daddy, my mommy, my brother.
RESEARCHER Where in your house is the mousetrap?
BOY It's down in the basement.
RESEARCHER What is it next to in the basement?
BOY It's next to the firewood.
By the time I met that boy, weeks after the experiment was over, he still "remembered" convincing details about things that never happened.
STOSSEL Was there a time when you got your finger caught in a mousetrap and had to go to the hospital?
STOSSEL Who went with you to the hospital?
BOY My mom and my dad and my brother Colin, but not the baby. He was in my mom's tummy.
What he told me was even more remarkable because just a few days before, his father discussed the experiment with him, explained that it was just a test, and that the mousetrap event never happened. The boy agreed-it was just in his imagination.
But when he talked to me, the boy denied the conversation with his father, and insisted the mousetrap story was true.
STOSSEL Did your father tell you something about the mousetrap finger story?
STOSSEL Is it true? Did it really happen?
BOY It wasn't a story. It really happened.
STOSSEL This really happened? You really got your finger caught? This really happened?
Why would the boy lie to me? I said to Professor Ceci that I assumed he wasn't intentionally making up the story. Ceci said, "I think they've come to believe it. It is part of their belief system."
Some molestation "experts" thought they'd come closer to the truth by giving kids anatomically correct dolls. With dolls, the social workers wouldn't have to ask so many questions. They could just say, "Imagine you are the doll; what did the teacher touch?" Lawyers argued that kids "wouldn't make up" what had been done to the doll. But Ceci's colleague Dr. Maggie Bruck conducted tests that showed that they would.
Bruck had a pediatrician add some extra steps to his routine physical examination. He measured the child's wrists with a ribbon, he put a little label on the child's stomach, and he tickled the child's foot with a stick. Never did the doctor go anywhere near the child's private parts. Then, a few days after the exam, using an anatomically correct doll, Bruck and the child's father asked leading questions about the doctor's exam. We caught it on tape.
FATHER So what did he do?
GIRL He put a stick in my vagina.
FATHER He put a stick in your vagina?
[Then the girl claimed the doctor hammered the stick into her vagina. And she said the doctor examined her rectum.]
DR. BRUCk He was where?
GIRL In my hiney.
None of it was true. But when dolls were used, half the kids who'd never had their private parts touched claimed the doctor touched them. The tests made Dr. Bruck question her prior faith in the testimony of children. She told me she thinks dozens of innocent people are in jail.
Dr. Ceci told me their leading questions were mild compared to what the investigators asked: "What we do . . . doesn't come close, for example, to what was done in the Kelly Michaels case."
The appellate court decision that set Kelly Michaels free garnered just a smidgeon of the media attention her trial and conviction got. After she was freed, she told me about her nightmare.
MS. MICHAELS One day you're getting ready for work and making coffee, minding your business, trying to get along as best you can, being a reasonable, decent, honorable citizen, and the next minute you are an accused child molester with the most bizarre- I'd never even heard of such things even being done.
STOSSEL They say you inserted objects, including Lego blocks, forks, spoons, serrated knives into their anuses, vaginas, penises-
MS. MICHAELS And a sword. It was in there.
STOSSEL -and a sword-
MS. MICHAELS Yeah.
STOSSEL -that you made children drink your urine, that you made kids take their clothes off and licked peanut butter off them. It's very hard to believe, yet the jury believed it and not you.
MS. MICHAELS No one was willing to doubt a child.
The media certainly wasn't. Professional skepticism took a holiday in the face of "good copy."
The media like bad news, and tend to believe it.
MYTH: Divorce hurts women much more than men, and many men abandon their kids.
TRUTH: Both men and women suffer after divorce, and lots of men want to give more to their kids.
The media (including the men, for psychological reasons involving guilt or other factors best left to Dr. Phil), see men as inviting, politically correct targets. When experts start trumpeting statistics that add up to "men are bad," reporters listen. For years, I heard bad things about deadbeat dads. They were living it up, while their ex-wives and children had to scrape by. It's a recurring story, and the media regurgitates it regularly. It's also group slander.
In 1985, Lenore Weitzman, then a sociologist at Harvard, published data showing that men prosper after divorce, while women and children suffer terribly.
Weitzman's report was appalling: Men's standard of living rose 42 percent after divorce, while women's declined by 73 percent. The media couldn't get enough of this exciting news. Those figures were cited not only in news stories, but in 348 social science articles, 250 law review articles, and 24 appeals court cases. Around that time, government officials also reported that Census data showed that about half of the divorced fathers in America didn't pay child support they owed. The evening newscasts and the papers featured both claims uncritically. The stories fit comfortably into the media's "save the victim" rut. But get the shovel: The stories didn't deserve the airtime or the headlines. A little reportorial digging would have burst the sanctimonious bubble.
Digging was finally done, but not by the media. Arizona State University psychologist Sanford Braver set out initially to examine the reasons for the shocking data. Why were those divorced fathers acting so irresponsibly? How could a dad abandon his child?
Braver was surprised to discover that the Weitzman figures were wrong, the result of a mathematical error. Weitzman later admitted she was wrong. She said a computer analyst had made a mistake-a mistake, in this case, heard around the world.
Braver conducted his own study of four hundred divorces, the biggest federally funded study ever done on divorced dads. His findings turned conventional wisdom, and all those media stories, on their heads. The 42 percent better for men, 73 percent worse for women data wasn't even close. "Our results," he said, "show that men and women come out almost exactly equally."
Braver then found that the Census data about deadbeat dads was way off too. The data came from questions asked of the custodial parent only. The custodial parent was almost always the mother. "Everything we knew about non-custodial fathers" in the Census report, Braver told me, "we knew from custodial mothers." Did some of the angry ex-wives lie? Probably, but we don't know, because the Census workers didn't bother to ask the fathers!
After my conversation with Braver, I went to Washington to meet with Dan Weinberg, the man who headed up that data collection for the Census Bureau. As often happens to me in Washington, I felt I was in another world:
STOSSEL So the Census worker says, how much in child support payments were you supposed to receive this year? And the woman remembers . . .
DAN WEINBERG Yes.
STOSSEL I just have a hard time believing that these people, many of whom are angry, are going to give honest answers.
DAN WEINBERG Actually-well, the anger may help them remember what they're supposed to receive.
STOSSEL Why not go to the man and ask, is it true?
DAN WEINBERG We would be violating the confidentiality of the custodial mother.
STOSSEL Is there any cross-check?
DAN WEINBERG No. We don't check any of it.
STOSSEL But wouldn't they lie just because they're mad at the man?
DAN WEINBERG People are basically honest.
The spirit of George Washington's cherry tree lives on along the Potomac. I too cannot tell a lie: The media both distort and oversimplify the issues of custody and child support. That reinforces the myth that many divorced dads never bother to see their children-the "runaway dads" so beloved by headline writers. Some men are every bit as despicable as the media portray them, but Braver's study showed that the majority of divorced dads do try to see their kids. In many cases, "fathers were impeded in their efforts," Braver told me. "The mother just simply said, 'No, you can't see your kid.'"
We videotaped one such heartbreaking scene. A divorced father went to see his five kids for what he thought would be a full-day visit. He was entitled to that, under a court order, and the court also ordered the mother not to discourage the children from spending time with their father. But she clearly had poisoned his children's minds against him. The father stood just outside his ex-wife's house and begged his children, "Would you like to go out with me today?" "No," said one kid after another. Then the mother ordered the kids back into her house.
What comes through on the tape is the unbridled satisfaction of the mother and the helplessness of the father. But that's not the picture you get from the media. The media automatically cast divorced parents in the roles of villainous father and heroic mother. Many mothers are heroic, but so are many fathers. But a divorced mother as the villain? Heaven forbid! That would stand the world of media victimology on its head.
MYTH: Schools are violent.
TRUTH: Schools are pretty safe.
Media bad news bears love crime and violence. Turn on the television or pick up a tabloid, and you will be convinced that you have more to fear than ever before. Terrible things are happening, and everyone knows they're happening much more often. These stories are more candidates for the shovel. The gory pictures and the excited copy conceal the actual TRUTH: America is safer than almost any country in human history.
The Columbine, Jonesboro, and Paducah school shootings during the late 1990s triggered a regular spate of stories about "spreading school violence." But school violence in America had been steadily decreasing. Violent crimes in schools dropped by half between 1992 and 2002, although reporting about school violence increased.
The shooting incidents were awful, but aberrations; more Americans die from lightning strikes than from school violence. More kids die in bathtubs. But the media had become obsessed with school violence. In the wake of Columbine, my network aired 383 stories about the tragedy. Sam Donaldson warned wary parents and students about "angry teens turning up in other towns." CBS News correspondent Bob McNamara called school shootings "an American nightmare that too many schools know too well."
But it wasn't a nightmare that schools knew well. In fact, students are probably safer in school than they are at home or at the mall. Crime statistics show that kids are twice as likely to be victims of violence away from school than they are in school.
The media hysteria encouraged people who run schools to do crazy things, like spend thousands of dollars on security cameras, and hire police officers to guard the doors. Some schools terrified students by running SWAT team drills; cops burst into classrooms and ordered kids down to the floor. The result? Kids in school felt less secure than ever before. Though school violence was down, studies show kids were more scared. "They can't learn under these conditions," says Dr. Frank Farley, former head of the American Psychological Association. To listen to the media, Dr. Farley told me, you'd have to believe that Chicken Little was right: "The sky is truly falling. America is in terrible straits and our schools are a mess and they're violent. But they are not violent. I don't know why there is all this press coverage, other than the need for a story."
That's it. The media beast must be fed. Scares drive up circulation and ratings.
MYTH: "Road rage" is an epidemic!
TRUTH: It's not.
The inventor of the term "road rage" is unknown, but he or she has a lot to answer for. Not as much as the media does, though. In 1997, the American Automobile Association Traffic Safety Foundation issued a report on aggressive driving. Newsweek said we were being "driven to destruction," Stone Phillips on NBC said it was "a bigger problem than ever," and on ABC my colleague Barbara Walters said "the trend is frightening."
Others were scratching their heads. They didn't see what the media did. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, which studies media coverage, told me: "If road rage is something that's increasing, we should have more fatalities on the road. There should be more reports of reckless driving. But these things are going down."
So what was the evidence for all these stories? I went to the AAA Foundation, and confronted their chief spokeswoman about their claim that road rage had increased by 51 percent.
STEPHANIE FAUL That's what it appeared to look like from our report. That's all I can tell you. We saw an increase in reported cases.
STOSSEL Reported in the press?
STEPHANIE FAUL Yes, reported in the press.
STOSSEL It might be that reporters just started liking the alliteration, road rage?
STEPHANIE FAUL Well, also they like the idea of violent death by strangers! It's a very common topic in the news reports.
STOSSEL [quoting from her press release] "Reached epidemic proportions. A bigger problem than ever." Does the study justify that?
STEPHANIE FAUL Well, yes and no.
STOSSEL "A neglected epidemic."
STEPHANIE FAUL Yeah, that's a-that's a bit strong.
STOSSEL The impression from the reporting is that there's greater danger out there.
STEPHANIE FAUL Yes. Because that's what sells papers, of course. I mean, you're in the media. You know that if you get people excited about an issue, that's what makes it appealing as a topic.
Get out the shovel! This is circular logic: The report was based on media mentions of aggressive driving. We in the media loved the catchy phrase "road rage" so much, we kept doing stories on it.
Robert Lichter suggested it all got started this way: "People were yelling at each other in their cars and making obscene gestures and even getting out of the car for years. Journalists just found a term for it. So last year, you went home and said, 'Somebody yelled at me from his car.' This year, you go home and say, 'I was a victim of road rage.'"
Then the AAA writes a report based on the spurt of stories-and new headlines are born. Media incest!
Once the media had a catchy phrase for it, road rage became an "epidemic."
MYTH: Using your cell phone at the gas pump could cause an explosion. TRUTH: Don't tap dance either.
The media is alarmed:
cell fone fireball (New York Daily News)
buying gas? don't touch that phone! (Toronto Star)
The facts are more reassuring. Cell phones are a source of static electricity, and anything that supplies a spark-however minuscule-can ignite a fire if the spark is near fuel vapors. If you are pumping gas yourself, with a cell phone in your hand that rings at the wrong time, theoretically you might be in danger. But there is no evidence that cell phones are causing fires.
Still, the media keeps pumping out the stories. In 2004, the Poughkeepsie [N.Y.] Journal ran this headline:
cell phone ring starts fire at gas station
The story quoted the local fire chief, Pat Koch, as saying gas vapors were ignited by the ringing of a cell phone. But-hold the presses and get the shovel!-just days later, Koch changed his tune: "After further investigation . . . I have concluded that the source of ignition was from some source other than the cell phone . . . most likely static discharge from the motorist himself." To its credit, the Poughkeepsie Journal gave its follow-up story as much play as the original. The media rarely do that.
The University of Oklahoma actually has a "Center for the Study of Wireless Electromagnetic Compatibility," which researches the effects of electronic devices on our lives. The center examined incident reports and scientific data, and concluded that there was "virtually no evidence to suggest that cell phones pose a hazard at gas stations." The researchers went even further: "The historical evidence," it said, "does not support the need for further research."
Any static electricity, any spark-producing activity, is dangerous near vapors. So rubbing your rear end against a cloth car seat on a dry winter day is more risky than using your cell phone near the fumes. Don't dance near the pumps with metal taps on your shoes either!
MYTH: We have less free time.
TRUTH: We have more.
"We're fried by work, frazzled by the lack of time."-Newsweek, March 9, 1995. "Life couldn't get any busier."-The Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), May 19, 2005. "Can your life get any busier?"-Saint Paul Pioneer Press, September 20, 2004. "Life is becoming busier for many Americans."-Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), May 28, 2000.
Victimhood again. Reporters love reporting that life is getting worse. News stories tell us we're "running ourselves ragged," and that Americans "have no free time." Pick up a magazine and read all about it: not enough time for romance, for relaxation, for our kids. Busy, busy, busy-less time than ever before. Except, it's not true.
When I went looking for real data, some scientific measure of how we spend our time, all paths led to the University of Maryland. There, sociologist John Robinson records how people spend their days. Beginning in 1965, he's had people fill out diaries so he could calculate how much free time people really have.
STOSSEL I assume since 1965, we've lost free time.
JOHN ROBINSON It's not the case. There is a discrepancy between what people say and what they report when they keep a time diary.
His time diaries show that since 1965, we've gained almost an hour more free time per day. Researchers say it's because Americans today work fewer hours, marry later, have fewer kids, retire earlier, and have better tools, like washing machines and microwaves.
The idea that we work harder than our ancestors is pure nonsense. Until 1890, half of all Americans worked in agriculture. People romanticize farms, but the old-fashioned family farm meant backbreaking labor under a broiling sun. Work began at dawn and continued past dark. Work in mines and factories was worse. Modern jobs are much easier. Our ancestors would be agog to see how much time we spend playing golf, watching TV (an average three to four hours per day), and going to our kids' soccer games, while complaining about how much we work. But don't tell that to any magazine editors you know; you wouldn't want to ruin a perfectly good thing for them. The free-time myth is good for circulation.
MYTH: Gas prices are going through the roof.
TRUTH: Gasoline is a bargain.
The media periodically get upset about "record" gas prices.
"The price of gasoline has risen again to a record high!" said one newscaster in 2004. "The high prices are making it harder for some to keep their heads above water," said another.
Drivers assume what they see at the pump confirms what they've heard on TV. One told me the prices are "scary." A woman said gas was "going up and up and up, and it's the most expensive it's ever been." And she was on a bike.
The media were saying that gas prices were at record highs for one simple, simple-minded reason: They are economically illiterate, so they didn't account for inflation. That makes the numbers look bigger than the costs actually are. Such reporting is silly. Not adjusting for inflation would mean that the movies Meet the Fockers and Rush Hour 2 outgrossed Gone With the Wind.
It's not as if the reporters would have to work at doing calculations to figure this out. Not only are there instant inflation calculators on the Web, but the U.S. Department of Energy accounts for inflation in its annual report of gas prices. At the time I'm writing this, the average price of gasoline in the U.S. is $2.26 per gallon. Once you account for inflation, that means gas today is sixty-seven cents a gallon cheaper than it was in 1922, and sixty-nine cents cheaper than in 1981. True, after Hurricane Katrina the price did reach an average of $2.87 per gallon-but that still is lower than the record average set in March 1981 of $3.12 per gallon.
By failing to account for inflation, the media have some Americans so alarmed that they can't think straight. "What costs more," I asked customers at a gas station, "gasoline or bottled water?" The answer I got from almost everyone was gasoline. At that very gas station, water was for sale at $1.29 for a twenty-four-ounce bottle. That's $6.88 per gallon, three times what the station charged for gasoline. It gets sillier. I asked gas station customers, "What costs more, gasoline or ice cream?" Again, most people said gasoline cost more. But at $3.39 a pint, "premium" ice cream costs about $27.00 a gallon.
We should marvel at how cheap gasoline is-what a bargain we get from oil companies. After all, it's easy to bottle water, but think about what it takes to produce and deliver gasoline. Oil has to be sucked out of the ground, sometimes from deep beneath an ocean. To get to the oil, the drills often have to bend and dig sideways through as much as five miles of earth. What they find then has to be delivered through long pipelines or shipped in monstrously expensive ships, then converted into three or more different formulas of gasoline and transported in trucks that cost more than $100,000 each. Then your local gas station must spend a fortune on safety devices to make sure you don't blow yourself up. At $2.26 a gallon (about forty-six cents of which goes to taxes), gas is miraculously cheap! But what we heard from the clueless media was, "Gas prices are at record highs!" MYTH: We are running out of oil fast.
TRUTH: Not so fast!
"It's going to be a catastrophe!"
When they're not complaining about the price of gas, doomsayers would have us believe that we are burning oil at an "unsustainable" rate.
Camera-hungry politicians know that predicting doom gets them TV face time. "It's inevitable that this is just the beginning of this gasoline crisis!" Senator Charles Schumer told me, as Hurricane Rita approached landfall in 2005. The New York Democrat is notorious for his hunger for media coverage. (A Washington joke: Where is the most dangerous place to be? Between Chuck and a camera.) Schumer told me that after Rita hit, the price of gas would rise to "five dollars a gallon."
He was eager to spend your money to cure his panic. Schumer wants a new "Manhattan Project" that would use huge amounts of tax money to fund "independent energy sources." I reminded him that the last time government tried that, it wasted billions on the totally failed synfuels project. That was a $20 billion Carter administration plan to develop a cheap way to make synthetic natural gas from coal. Schumer said that synfuels was a failure because "political leaders" chose it, but this time Congress would have "nonpoliticians" decide which projects to fund.
Sure they would.
If nonpoliticians are going to decide which projects to fund, why do we need Chuck Schumer? We already have a system in which nonpoliticians decide what projects to fund. It's called "the market."
If the price of a barrel of oil stays high, lots of entrepreneurs will scramble for ways to supply cheaper energy. They'll come up with alternative energy sources or better ways to suck oil out of the ground. At fifty dollars a barrel, it's even profitable to recover oil that's stuck in the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Peter Huber and Mark Mills point out in their book The Bottomless Well that those tar sands alone contain enough oil to meet our needs for a hundred years.
But the media don't pay much attention to that. Not running out of oil is not a very interesting story.
MYTH: A full moon makes people crazy.
TRUTH: I was crazy enough to report that.
We media people routinely and mindlessly corroborate myths about science and nature. People already believe that a full moon influences people in weird, negative ways, and reporters are quick to confirm it. Here are samples of what the clueless media has said about the full moon:
"The moon's effects are legendary . . . Few of us can escape the power of the moon."-Hugh Downs, 20/20, November 8, 1984. "Spokane County sheriff's deputies have no need to check their lunar tables to know when it's a full moon out there."-Spokesman-Review, October 19, 2005. "A Florida researcher studied murders in Dade County, and found more murders were committed during full moons than any other time. So tonight, watch out."-John Stossel
Yes, I confess: I actually said that on Good Morning America years ago. The Dade County study seemed plausible-people might drink, party, and therefore murder more people when the moon was full. It was only much later that I discovered the study was flawed. Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, embarrassed me by explaining that "Researchers went back, reanalyzed the data, and discovered that there's nothing unusual going on."
Shermer said thirty-six other studies prove there is no full-moon effect, but people still believe there is one because our memories play tricks on us. Our brains look for patterns, and when we find one, it sticks. We remember something unusual that happened on a full moon.
"We don't remember the unusual things that happen on all the other times because we're not looking for them," Shermer told me. "These things go on all the time, and there's no full moon, they're not looking for it, they don't remember it. We remember the hits, we forget the misses." (See also Chapter 9, The Power of Belief.)
Next time you see the "more violence during full moon" headline-get the shovel. MYTH: We're drowning in garbage!
TRUTH: There's plenty of room.
"New York City produces 20,000 tons of solid waste every day and the Sanitation Department is running out of places to put it. It argues in a new report that the only place left is the sky."-The New York Times, April 21, 1984. "We're going to be drowning in garbage."-William K. Reilly (former EPA administrator), from Newsday, February 1, 1989. "A World Drowning in Litter."-BBC News, March 4, 2002.
This myth got jump-started with a real-life incident that took on a life of its own. In 1987, a barge full of New York trash was supposed to be shipped to a landfill in Louisiana. But on the way to Louisiana, the shipper tried to save money by dumping his trash in North Carolina. Suspicious local officials turned him away, and called the media. The complaints of "We don't want New York's garbage!" got so much publicity that by the time the "garbage barge" reached its original destination, the Louisiana dump wouldn't accept it anymore. That brought more publicity.
Television news crews rushed to the scene. Before you could say "Fabricate a crisis to raise money," activists around the country had added "the garbage crisis" to their agenda. Said Cynthia Pollock of the Worldwatch Institute, "We are now approaching an emergency situation!" That got more publicity.
But it wasn't true.
The EPA says that, although some cities have to ship garbage to other states, overall landfill capacity is actually increasing. Dump operators keep finding new ways to pack the trash tighter, to make it decompose faster, and pile it higher. Some landfill owners actually compete for our trash; they make money off it by putting grass on top of it and building ski slopes and golf courses.
And America has huge amounts of open space. Not that we are going to fill it all with garbage-all of America's garbage for the next five hundred years would fit into one landfill one hundred yards high. And it wouldn't even be the size of one of Ted Turner's ranches.
The fact that we have plenty of room-gets no publicity.
MYTH: The world is too crowded.
TRUTH: That's garbage too.
We've heard this one for decades. News articles warn of "the population bomb," a "tidal wave of humanity," and plead "No more babies." Clueless alarmists like Ted Turner warn, "There's lots of problems all over the world caused by too many people." It's true that the world population today is more than six billion people, but who says that's too many?
We could take the entire world population, move everyone into the state of Texas, and the population density there would still be less than that of New York City. I said that to Turner, who then looked at me as if I'd unwrapped a dead fish.
TED TURNER It is a catastrophe that's just a time bomb that's waiting to happen. STOSSEL But people are our greatest wealth. More people is a good thing. TED TURNER Up to a point. Up to a point. And you, as a newsman, should damn well know that. Eventually you stand around in a desert with nothing to eat. That's absurd. The media runs pictures of starving masses in Africa and blames that on overpopulation. One writer, worrying about Niger, said that we must "reduce birth rates drastically, otherwise permanent famine . . . will be the norm." But Niger's population density is nine persons per square kilometer, minuscule compared to population densities in wealthy countries like the USA (28), Japan (340), the Netherlands (484), and Hong Kong (6,621). The number of people isn't the problem.
Famine is caused by things like civil wars and government corruption that interfere with the distribution of food. Sudan had famine when government militia forces stripped the land of cattle and grain. In Niger, 2.5 million people are starving because food production is managed by the state. The absence of property rights, price controls, and other cruel socialist experiments under way in Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Lesotho are starving millions more. In Zimbabwe, it's Robert Mugabe's kleptocracy that's doing the damage.
The number of people isn't the problem. Improved technology now allows people to grow more food on less land. The UN says the world overproduces food today. More than 125,000 babies will be born before you finish reading this book, but they're not a burden, they're a blessing. They're more brains that might cure cancer, more hands to build things, and more voices to bring us beautiful music. The clueless media, in pursuit of the scare du jour, do us a nasty disservice by focusing on the wrong things. Because of the constant parade of frightening stories, huge amounts of money and energy are spent on minuscule risks. In the meantime, millions die of malaria, thousands die from bacteria, teachers are jailed, fathers are kept from their kids, and most everyone is frightened needlessly. There are real problems in the world. The media ought to focus on them.
Excerpted from MYTHS, LIES, AND DOWNRIGHT STUPIDITY by John Stossel. Copyright © 2006 John Stossel. All rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold.