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.
Back to the studio. Skewering haughty politicos, Stossel is merciless. While introducing the opening segment about the U.N.’s climate-change summit in Copenhagen, Stossel brings out a green telephone (much like the red phone that sits on Beck’s desk) and invites former vice president Al Gore to call in. “Will we all drown from global warming?” he asks. “Al Gore says yes.” He lights up. “Gore has enough time to go on Saturday Night Live but not on this program?” he asks. Then Stossel – slate-gray suit, slate-gray hair, slate-gray ’stache — moves from the audience to the stage, where Taylor waits. Taylor, a global-warming skeptic, is greeted with a sharp question: “Are you a tool of the coal industry?” Some policy talk follows.
Next, Stossel goes to College Guy in row one, a Columbia student, and lets him challenge Taylor. Clips follow, and Stossel more than lives up to Fox’s “fair and balanced” billing. In between absurd apocalyptic snippets from Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth are shots of then-presidential nominee John McCain cheering on the “science” of global warming. “Are they just pandering for votes?” asks Stossel. The audience laps it up, but it’s less like a traditional television slugfest and more like a late Friday afternoon class with the cool prof who lets you spout off and tangle with him.
Reflecting on the audience’s questions, Stossel says afterwards that he is pleased with only “the one girl who was informed, clear, angry, and articulate.” The rest of the questioners “were a little convoluted and not very passionate. Maybe we’ll have to hire professionally angry people for next time,” he jokes.
Stossel only falls flat when he tries to be a little too kitschy, driving out in a golf cart that he bought through the Cash for Clunkers program. It’s funny, but in a little-giggle, not riotous-laughter, way. It is clear he is aiming for the feel of the spunky consumer reporting he did for years, but in a tiny studio, and with little background information, it doesn’t stick.
“Look, I’ve always been really nerdy and careful about editing things,” says Stossel. “I’m still learning how to do this live gig.”
I have a feeling he’ll figure it out. Oprah’s retiring and libertarian ideas are rising. Instead of “going Galt,” this Rand fan has decided to change stations. For now, it’s good to see a conservative who is willing to light a fire, not just wag a finger, get some airtime.
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute. “Stossel” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on the Fox Business Network. It re-airs on Fridays at 10 p.m. and Sundays at 11 p.m.