20/20, John Stossel To Run Hatchet Piece on Young Voter Engagement
by Mike Connery, Thu Oct 09, 2008 at 10:18:25 AM EDT
On Friday at 10pm, 20/20 will run a piece on the youth vote called "Maybe It's Your Civic Duty Not To Vote," in which they suggest that uninformed voters - primarily young people - not turn out to the polls. In talking to the youth group,HeadCount, featured in the piece, it is clear that 20/20 and Stossel were less interested in discovering the truth about young voters while filming their piece than in crafting a hatchet job meant to cast doubt on the growing youth vote.
There is a lot that is wrong with this piece. Yes, there are many uninformed voters, but that category is not limited to young people, who are unfortunately the main target of this piece. Anyone who has ever watched Jay Leno could tell you that many Americans are uninformed about current events. Unfortunately, some see that as an excuse to rob people of their constitutional rights, and Stossel and ABC are happy to play along.
But all is not as it appears in this report. In talking with HeadCount, the group featured in the piece, it's clear that Stossel and 20/20 were not interested in giving the young people they interviewed a fair shake. They had a narrative to their story and stuck by it - facts be damned. More than that, they worked -um, creatively - to make sure their point of view dominated the piece. Here's a list of inaccuracies and selective editing that viewers won't see:
- At 1 minute into the piece, Stossel interviews two voters who can accurately answer questions about American civics, after which, far more concert-goers and "regular folks" are shown who are unable to answer similar questions. According to HeadCount, this is not an accurate representation of the percentage of interviewees who successfully answered the questions. Far more concert-goers were knowledgeable than implied by the report.
- At minute 1:20, the report shows a girl saying that there are only 12 Senators in the US. The only problem? She wasn't responding to a question about the number of US Senators, but about the number of Supreme Court Justices. Yes, she was still incorrect, but Stossel and 20/20 manipulated the footage to make her appear even less knowledgeable than she actually was.
Staffers at HeadCount say that this is often the case with the featured interviewees, who were asked not a single question, as the report implies, but many. Many interviewees were knowledgeable about some issues, but less so when it came to other issues. The young voter responses included in the report were cherry-picked by Stossel and ABC producers to highlight only the incorrect answers.
- At 1:42, Stossel asks Marc Brownstein if voters should be "knowledgeable" (whatever that means) before casting a ballot. Brownstein replies that "there are a lot of of uneducated voters out there." But that wasn't all he said. In the full interview, Brownstein went on to explain that HeadCount distributes nonpartisan issue sheets at the tables alongside the voter registration materials the organization offers each night. That educational effort was completely left out of Stossel's report.
- Also cut out of the full report were interviews with very knowledgeable young HeadCount staffers, teachers, and youth activists - generally the most informed portion of the pool of interviewees.
HeadCount staffers who followed the camera crew throughout the day offered interesting coda to those interviews. During the filming, Andrew Sullivan, a Harvard graduate and producer of the piece, mistakenly tried to correct one young concert goer who was asked about the length of single term for a congressional representative. The young concert-goer, correctly, said two years. Sullivan, incorrectly, tried to tell them it was four. I guess Sullivan won't be voting this year?
All of this is par for the course for John Stossel, who has often had a rocky relationship with the truth. Here are just a few examples pulled from his Wikipedia page:
 Galbraith and Stossel
Liberal economist James K. Galbraith said that Stossel, in a story on laissez-faire economics in September 1999, used an out of context clip of Galbraith to make it seem that Galbraith had said nearly the opposite of what he meant. Stossel denied that Galbraith's views had been misrepresented but changed the words with which he introduced the Galbraith clip in rebroadcasts of the program.
 Organic Vegetables
A February 2000 story about organic vegetables on 20/20 included statements by Stossel that tests had shown that neither organic nor conventional produce samples contained any pesticide residue, and that organic food was more likely to be contaminated by E. coli bacteria. The Environmental Working Group objected to his report, mainly questioning his statements about bacteria, but also managed to determine that the produce had never been tested for pesticides. They communicated this to Stossel, but after the story's producer backed Stossel's recollection that the test results had been as described, the story was rebroadcast months later, uncorrected, and with a postscript in which Stossel reiterated his claim. Later, after a report in The New York Times confirmed the Environmental Working Group's claims, ABC News suspended the producer of the segment for a month and reprimanded Stossel. Stossel apologized, saying that he had thought the tests had been conducted as reported. However, he asserted that the gist of his report had been accurate.
 Televangelist Lifestyle
In a March 2007 segment about finances and lifestyles of televangelists, 20/20 aired a clip of a TV minister originally broadcast by the Lifetime Network in 1997. The clip made it seem that the minister was describing his wealth in extravagant terms, when actually, he was telling a parable about a rich man. ABC News twice aired a retraction and apologized for the error. The minister filed a lawsuit against Stossel, his source for the clip, 20/20, and ABC for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Stossel, who is a self-proclaimed libertarian (a position that obviously does not extend to the freedom to vote for one's leaders), and frequent contributor to the conservative website Townhall.com, closes out the piece by highlighting the work of fellow libertarian Byan Caplan, an econ professor who made his bones espousing an elitist view of democracy in which only a select few should cast their ballots:
"Maybe 75 percent of people can name the vice president. ... The public's knowledge of politics is shockingly low," economist Bryan Caplan said.
In his book "The Myth of the Rational Voter," Caplan argues that people who know little about our government ought to stay home on Election Day.
But aren't Americans always told it's their civic duty to vote?
"This is very much like saying, 'It's our civic duty to give surgery advice,'" Caplan said. "Now, we like to think that political issues are much less complicated than brain surgery, but many of them are pretty hard. If someone doesn't know what he's talking about, it really is better if they say, 'Look, I'm just gonna leave this in wiser hands.'"
But isn't it elitist to say only some people should vote?
"Is it elitist to say only some people should do brain surgery?" Caplan said. "The bottom line is, if you don't know what you're doing, you are not doing the country a favor by voting."
Voting is serious business. Democracy works best when people educate themselves. So maybe instead of telling people things like "Rock the Vote," these groups should say "Rock or Vote."
All Americans - young and old - may not be experts on the every issue, but they are experts on their own lives. They know that they're not getting enough help. That tuition is too high and grants are too low. That they need to drive to work, and heat their house or apartment, but energy prices are too high. That they are one broken leg away from bankruptcy and that getting a loan to buy a house just become that much more unattainable. And let's face it, it's not as if the experts have that great a track record when it comes to the issues of the day, whether we're talking about the subprime housing market, the war in Iraq, ending our addiction to fossil fuels.
Democracy is for all of us, not just a select few. As a nation, we eliminated the idea of literacy tests decades ago, and rightly so. Kudos to HeadCount for pushing back on this argument to the extent that was possible within the piece, and shame on Stossel and ABC for enabling it. Young voters have faced a hostile media for decades, always pining about youth apathy. Now, on the cusp of a record breaking turnout, for a major media outlet to question the validity of those votes on such flimsy grounds, in opposition our constitutional rights, is the height of irresponsibility. Dare I say it, it's unamerican.
If you would like to express your displeasure about this piece to ABC, send a polite but firm email to the producer, Andrew Sullivan, outlining your concerns: Andrew.G.Sullivan [at] abc [dot] com
Cross-posted from Future Majority - a blog covering progressive youth politics.