Alec Baldwin: Monster or Alienated Parent?

There's no excuse for Baldwin's actions, but do divorced dads get a bad rap?

April 23, 2007 — -- People have RIGHTLY condemned Alec Baldwin for the tirade he left on his daughter's cell phone:

"Selfish Alec"

"Baldwin the Thoughtless Pig"

"A Mean Dialing Machine"

You shouldn't swear at an 11-year-old, no matter what, but stories I've done on divorce help me understand why a parent could react with that kind of frustration. Fathers often get a bad deal in the courts, often exacerbated by credulous reporting of bad studies by liberal reporters.

Watch "Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity" on a special edition of "20/20" Friday, May 4, at 10 p.m. EDT

Here's how I covered it in my book "Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel -- Why Everything You Know Is Wrong" Click here to buy the book.

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…


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.

Portions of this story taken from John Stossel's book, "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity," coming out in paperback May 1.