Stossel Comes Alive
The libertarian reporter finds a new direction on Fox Business.


Robert Costa

John Stossel is hepped up. In a cramped studio at Fox News in midtown Manhattan, with three minutes until showtime, the former ABC reporter is bouncing from producer to producer. He eyes the low-hanging lights, rushes past the skinny hipster holding cables, and grabs coffee from an intern. Behind him, the audience of about 60 fidgets. This is the first live taping of Stossel’s eponymous new program on the Fox Business Network. Both the crowd and the production team seem unsure about just what kind of show this is. An uncomfortable quiet lingers. Then, some magic: Stossel hears an argument in the front row.

A frat boy with shaggy hair is feuding with a middle-aged soccer mom. Mom thinks global warming, Stossel’s focus for the episode, is a fraud. College Guy, an Ivy Leaguer, thinks she’s nuts. Voices rise and Stossel smiles. He jumps up onto the risers and starts to chat with the crowd. He tells them to get ready to participate in the taping. “Don’t show off your intellect,” he says with a wink. Instead of pontificating, he urges them to ask tough, simple questions. On stage a few feet away, Jerry Taylor, the Cato Institute scholar and Stossel’s first guest, flashes a thin grin. Charlie Rose this ain’t.

Stossel’s fine with that. “When I started, I told my producer that maybe we should be a little more Charlie Rose, but after taping the pilot, I realized that I actually wanted to go to the audience more,” he says.

Indeed, all of this — the audience interplay, the live take, the Murdoch-owned studio — is something new to Stossel. In nearly three decades of consumer reporting at ABC, he rarely did live television. His contract stipulated that only in an emergency would he go live, since he had long suffered from a stuttering problem. Now, after years of 20/20 specials and college lectures, where he relished back-and-forth with students and lost the stutter, Stossel tells NRO that he was ready for something different — something that bubbled with the libertarian ideas he cherishes as well as the sparks that come with a smart crowd unafraid of putting the host on the spot.

“I’m used to telling stories by writing scripts and re-editing footage six or seven times,” says Stossel. “The wildness of live and uncontrolled interviews is very new to me.” The fresh format, however, was not the reason why Stossel left ABC for Fox. “It’s about having the time to focus on the content,” he says. “Part of the reason I wanted to do an hour-long show is because, after speaking on campuses, I wanted to capture the energy of lively, angry students and the spirit of their provocative questions.”

Critiquing the growth of the state will be the theme running though each episode. Tonight’s program (airing at 8 p.m. EST) will focus on the health-care debate. Investigating government gone bad and exploring the power of free markets makes for good TV, says Stossel. Beyond blending a little Milton Friedman in with the news of the week, Stossel believes he’s filling a void. “Libertarian ideas aren’t explained well anywhere on television,” he sighs. His idea: Why not inject Milton’s ideas with a little Oprah oomph? (Nobody won a car at his first taping, though the crowd did walk away with free copies of Freakonomics.)

So what distinguishes this show from every other conservative talk show on Fox in the age of Obama? “I wanted to do a show like this when George W. Bush was president, too,” he says. “Fox is open to a bunch of different points of view. I often like what Glenn Beck is saying. I enjoy going on O’Reilly. They each have different talents. Beck does radio for hours every day and is a master at riffs. O’Reilly is great at the live interview and knows how to argue. He moves quickly. I like a little more control. I’m a perfectionist after many years in a world where we left so much on the cutting-room floor. At the same time, I’m very aware that live and spontaneous is also a key part of what makes Fox successful.”

Fox Business Network, he adds, is “more in line” with his interests than is the Fox News Channel mothership, since it’s “all about business and economics, and rarely spends much time on the murders of the week or the vanished pretty girl.” It’s a good fit, he says.

News, says Stossel, will drive his program’s topics just as much as libertarian criticism. Stossel says he had thought about using the pilot episode, in which he discusses the work of Ayn Rand, as his first show, but jumped to global warming after the “Climategate” e-mails were leaked from the University of East Anglia, where top climate scientists where shown to be trying to manipulate the historical record of global temperatures.