Give me a break! Those words, or something close to them, came from a freshman reporter on the Daily Princetonian newspaper in the spring of 1968. The freshman had traveled to Yale to cover a sports event for the campus paper, and had turned in his expense report. But the business manager of the ‘Prince,’ John F. Stossel, Class of 1969, had rejected the expense report.

Now the freshman appealed to me, the chairman of the paper and the one name higher than Stossel’s on the masthead. I looked over the expenses: 60 cents or so for a quart of oil, $5 for gas, $3 or $4 for a meal, and maybe $2 for tolls on the Connecticut Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. Nothing extravagant — not even by the financial indices of 1968, when a year’s tuition, room, and board at Princeton were about $3,000.

What could have been the problem, I asked. “The tolls,” the freshman responded. “Stossel says he won’t pay for the tolls.” But why not? “He said I should have taken local roads.”

One quick conversation later and the freshman had his expense money (tolls included). And I had an indelible memory of Stossel, the unorthodox student businessman. Now, 35 years later, Stossel has a national reputation as an unorthodox television consumer affairs reporter — with his signature line of “give me a break.” The co-anchor of ABC television’s 20/20 newsmagazine show, Stossel will be at the Princeton University Store on Tuesday, February 10, at 7 p.m. talking about and signing copies of his new book, “Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media.”

At the risk of becoming the scourge of the business manager here at U.S. 1, I expropriated $25 of company money and bought Stossel’s book (yes, I could have skimmed the book at the U-Store for free, or grabbed some excerpts from Amazon.com or abcnews.com — all free roads on the information highway).

But it was a worthwhile expense. Stossel’s book is not only informative (I had forgotten just how many scams and shams have been visited upon us in the guise of environmentalism and consumerism) but also honest and forthright (Stossel provides half a dozen instances in which he was duped along with the rest of us — not something you hear from the average celebrity journalist).

In his book Stossel recounts, for example, how he “fell” for some “dubious research” on the self esteem of elementary school girls and boys that led him to do a 20/20 report on the advantages of all-girl schools. A closer reading of the research showed that girls were doing fine at coed public schools.

Along the way, Stossel trusted trial lawyers and government safety experts and reported on everything from exploding coffee makers to Hartz Mountain flea collars that were purportedly killing kittens and puppies — threats that he now believes are “statistically insignificant.”

Stossel eventually became known as “that conservative” on ABC, despite the fact that he believes that most abortion should be legal and that homosexuality is “perfectly normal.” Libertarian would be a better description, he writes, despite its “flaky” and “libertine” connotations.

Those lofty libertarian ideals of private enterprise stepping in where government has failed always sound great at first. But as everyone knows, government has to protect us in many critical areas. Even Stossel concedes that without some government protection the environment would be quickly ravaged.

But take the Food and Drug Administration, for example. Stossel makes a modest proposal: What would happen if FDA compliance were made voluntary? For one thing private competitors would get into the business — he cites the example of the private Underwriters Laboratory, which now has some 17,000 appliances listed as UL-approved, a designation that manufacturers work hard to attain. For another thing, without the government attempting to do the approval work for us, we all would become much more vigilant in terms of what we medicines we ingest. One adverse reaction to a medicine and the Internet will be buzzing with the report.

But without the FDA and its regulated marketplace, how can innocent people be protected from the snake oil salesmen who will crawl out from under rocks to sell their potions? Stossel has anticipated that question and has an answer: The snake oil salesmen are already out there — check your E-mail in-box if you don’t believe him.

I say go see my old friend Stossel at the U-Store. Hear him out. Buy his book (or at least skim it at the shelf). And don’t razz him about the time he tried to hoodwink the freshman out of some expense money. That was from his college days 35 years ago. Give him a break.

rein@princetoninfo.com

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