Copyright ©1997 by The Providence Journal Co.
Used with permission.

Friday, Jaunary 31, 1997

BOB KERR: Ivy Leaguers clash over the right to be offensive

John Stossel, who fills the sensitive-guy slot on ABC's 20/20, once did a story about professional wrestling and questioned its legitimacy. One of the wrestlers took offense and gave him a legitimate broken nose.

It made for great TV. Stossel was down but not out. He pulled himself off the floor and put his own painful signature on the story.

When the story ended and we were brought back to Barbara Walters on the anchor desk, she had that million-dollar "Oh, the horror" look on her face that has underscored so many reports from bloody frontlines.

Stossel's amazing. He showed, with his own mangled cartilage, that professional wrestlers can sometimes act like thugs. Until then, we'd figured they were oboe majors at Juilliard off on a spree.

This week Stossel was wrestling again, this time in a verbal way with Brown students, who provided no surprises in how they treated the strikingly handsome Princeton graduate.

They treated him like a disease.

Stossel was on campus to do a story for 20/20 about a sexual-misconduct case that has sparked continuing debate over how sexual misconduct is defined and handled at Brown.

But he can't take any battle wounds back to the studio on this one. He can't bring Barbara back to full, taut-faced torment.

He can't even do the story.

If ABC has any standards -- and the network has suggested that it does -- then it has to scratch this one on the grounds that its reporter did what a reporter must not do: alter the course of a story by jumping into the middle of it.

As reported by D. Morgan McVicar in yesterday's Journal-Bulletin, Stossel, among other things:

This was low rent all the way around. While some of the students chanted, "Rape is not TV hype," they helped turn it into that very thing by providing Stossel with all the angry, heated footage he wanted. While some of the students had the good sense to suggest that everyone leave because the TV crew was enjoying the confrontation too much, few followed the suggestion.

And holding the rally while Stossel and his camera were wandering the campus only heightened the risk that a sensitive issue would get sensationalized. It wouldn't be the first time the camera's lure had overcome good intentions.

And it certainly wouldn't be the first time that a reporter had lost it -- had let his self-importance intrude on a story and make it something it wasn't.

But the story now is not so much what happened Wednesday at Brown as what ABC will do with it. Now that Stossel has blown any claim to being an objective observer, how can the story be shown and have any credibility? It's damaged goods.

Perhaps ABC should just drop all pretense and run a Stossel's Corner segment, complete with a boxing-ring bell to let us know it's coming, and some appropriately pugilistic lead-in to leave no doubt that what follows will be in-your-face.

Tonight on 20/20, Stossel is doing a story on legalized prostitution. He will take viewers inside a bordello.

The challenge to the viewers will be to figure out who the whores are.