Lies, Myths and Downright Stupidity : ABC's John Stossel smears John Edwards and trial lawyers


On the July 23 edition of ABC's 20/20, co-anchor John Stossel -- who narrates a recurring segment on the show titled "Lies, Myths and Downright Stupidity" -- was guilty of all three during his false and misleading commentary about presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator John Edwards and trial lawyers.

In a line representative of the entire commentary, Stossel charged:

John Edwards has said he loved being a trial lawyer because he was able to help the little guy, but lawyers hurt the little guys, too. Every product you buy has a built-in cost to cover what lawyers make through lawsuits.

Another way of looking at this, of course, is that lawyers wouldn't make money through product liability lawsuits if corporations stopped making products that injure people. But Stossel is entitled to his opinion; what he isn't entitled to do is distort the facts to make his case. It didn't take long for him to do so:

The Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] found doctors order painful tests they consider unnecessary, for fear of being sued. And the majority of doctors say they recommended invasive procedures more often than they believed were medically necessary in an effort to prevent potential litigation.

Stossel is apparently referring to a 2003 HHS paper. A quick look at that paper, however, reveals that HHS didn't "find" anything about doctors ordering tests; it merely cited a privately funded poll that did.

That Harris poll interviewed 300 physicians online, as well as 100 nurses and 100 hospital administrators via telephone, and was commissioned by Common Good, an organization formed "to overhaul America's lawsuit culture" because "[f]ear of litigation has undermined our freedom to make sensible decisions. ... Doctors, teachers, ministers, even little league coaches, find their daily decisions hampered by legal fear. Our system of justice, long America's greatest pride, is now considered a tool for extortion, not balance."

In short, far from citing an official government study, as Stossel claimed he was doing, he was actually citing a private poll paid for by an organization with a political agenda.

This type of dishonest reporting is nothing new for Stossel; ABC was forced to correct a report in which Stossel lied about what tests were performed as part of a segment on organic foods. In an effort to debunk the benefits of organic food, Stossel claimed, "Our test, surprisingly, found no pesticide residue on the conventional samples or the organic." It shouldn't have been surprising that no pesticide residue was found: as ABC later confirmed, no tests for pesticides were performed.

Stossel concluded his anti-Edwards commentary as follows:

"Maybe all of Edward's cases were good ones, where C-sections were called for. It's possible that's true, but the fearful atmosphere that these kinds of lawsuits create has far-reaching consequences. Consider the minister who will no longer hug a grieving parishioner because of lawsuit concerns or the teachers who are told not to touch their students, or allow them to climb onto their lap for fear of lawsuit. ... Employers can't tell the truth about their former employees, as the truth might have legal consequences. This threatens our safety, too. It's one reason a nurse who was killing patients kept getting jobs at new hospitals. ... This kind of fear doesn't make Americans safer. Give me a break."

Stossel's "commentary" by this point had degenerated into vague, anecdotal, and perhaps apocryphal claims that because of Edwards, ministers won't hug parishioners and homicidal nurses run amok throughout the land.

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