"SCARED STIFF: WORRIED IN AMERICA,"
A JOHN STOSSEL TWO-PART SPECIAL REPORT,
AIRS FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 23 ON ABC NEWS' "20/20"
Are you scared stiff? There's a lot to be scared about. The media warn us about terrorism, bird flu, vicious crime, cancer, global warming and much more. But are all worries created equal? John Stossel expands on his very first ABC TV special, "Are We Scaring You to Death?," by looking at how we handle risks that face us today. He finds that what we worry about is often different from what's most likely to hurt us. Stossel's "Scared Stiff: Worried In America" airs as a special two-part "20/20," FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 23 (9:01-10:00 & 10:00-11:00 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network.
Terrorism: Terrorism is a big fear, but how big is the risk? Stossel examines what Veronique De Rugy of the American Enterprise Institute calls "terror porn," billions of dollars wasted in the name of safety, and what Stossel calls "FIC," the "Fear Industrial Complex" -- politicians, lawyers, activists and media who have an incentive to keep you scared. They profit by spreading fear.
Clark Kent Ervin, the former Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security and author of Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack, say we must do much more to protect ourselves from terrorists. He says there should be armed guards at stadiums, shopping malls and schools. But skeptics, like John Mueller, author of Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, say the threat is exaggerated, and that the average American is less likely to be killed by an international terrorist than by driving into a deer.
Kidnapping and Molestation: CNN's Nancy Grace and "Dateline's" Predator programs earn high ratings by focusing on molestation and kidnapping. The Center for Missing and Exploited Children runs powerful public service announcements about abducted kids. But what damage is done by the fear they spread? Stossel interviews kids who fear kidnapping. But cars are much more likely to hurt them.
Vaccines: Bobby Kennedy Jr. is one of many activists who have blamed some vaccines for IQ loss, mental retardation and autism, among other things. Stossel looks at the debate and concludes that activists and lawyers may be killing people by frightening the public about vaccines. Stossel's own daughter got whooping cough after Stossel's pediatrician failed to give her the final vaccination, having watched a "20/20" report that presented accusations about the whooping cough vaccine. She recovered and appears on the program. Stossel tells lawyer Allen McDowell: "You're part of the Fear Industrial Complex. You scare people and make money off it!" After a pause, McDowell says, "True." He says it's "the American way... because of the litigation, they changed it."
Breast Implants: The silicone implant scare is another example of the Fear Industrial Complex. Some women were so frightened about "poison" inside their bodies that they cut their bodies open themselves to get the implant out. Stossel interviews one of those women, and confronts super-lawyer John O'Quinn. O'Quinn made more than a billion dollars suing tobacco companies and implant makers. Fortune called O'Quinn and his partners "lawyers from Hell."
Unintended Consequences: Politicians pass laws in the name of safety, but safety regulations can create new problems:
* Bike helmet laws: Countries that require bicyclists to wear helmets find that fewer people ride-making us fatter. And it's not clear that the mandatory helmets result in fewer injuries; one study found cars pass closer to bicyclists wearing helmets. And now that Stossel wears a helmet, he takes more risks; he rides in NYC traffic. (It may be that the best safety protection for bicyclists is to wear a wig, to look like a woman. Stossel tries it).
* Sanitizing the house: Sterile houses may be giving more children asthma. It's possible that Stossel helped give his own daughter asthma.
* Child safety caps: Medicine bottles are now so tough to open that some people leave the cap off. More poisonings result.
* There are also unintended consequences if the Fear Industrial Complex scares us about the wrong things. Stossel confronts the head of the activist group, "Food and Water Watch." Its demonstrations against food irradiation and claims that irradiation is dangerous have stalled the irradiation of food in the USA. Yet the CDC estimates that 5,000 people die every year from food poisoning. Organizations like the WHO, FDA, USDA, CDC and AMA all say irradiation is safe.
"Scared Stiff: orried in America" also profiles some constant worriers. Sarah Fortino, a college student in Michigan, says the only time she doesn't worry is when she's sleeping. "My body is always anticipating a disaster," she says. Melissa Whitworth, a journalist for the Daily Telegraph of London who had treatment for anxiety, still worries about riding the subways in New York: "If anything out of the ordinary happens, loud noises, a big group of noisy people come on, that would cause my stomach to lurch." Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of Worry: Hope and Help for a common condition, says our brains are simply not wired to deal with the number and types of things we're exposed to today: "Our brain really hasn't caught up to where we are socially. We're still back in Tigerland."
Finally, there is good news: People are nostalgic for the "good old days," but today most Americans are richer, safer, live longer, have more money and more options than ever before. Stossel profiles some happy risk takers and reminds us: Risk built America.
"20/20" is anchored by Elizabeth Vargas and John Stossel. David Sloan is the executive producer.