For his entire 42-year broadcast-journalism career, John Stossel had been avoiding live television-and battling a stutter. But when the time came in January for Stossel to broadcast live for a full hour on the Fox Business Network, “I decided it was time for me to face my fears and, if necessary, just stutter away,” he says. “The happiest stutterers, I learned, are those who are willing to stutter in front of others.”
In the end the telecast went off without a hitch or a stumbled-over word. But those 60 stutter-free minutes represent a stunning turnaround for Stossel, who was once pulled off-air as a fledgling reporter for his speech impediment. Terrified of a recurrence, Stossel had it written into subsequent contracts, including during his 2003-09 stint as Barbara Walters’ coanchor on 20/20, that he would never be forced to do live reports, finding reassurance in knowing he’d have more than one opportunity to tape a segment. Still, Stossel says he “lived in fear” of being heard tripping over words.
Now, however, the anchorman says he’s had a change of opinion. “The one thing I’ve learned is that stuttering in public is never as bad as I fear it will be,” says Stossel, 64. With the issue, which affects more than 3 million Americans, prominently in the public eye thanks to the Best Picture-winning The King’s Speech, “I decided it was time for me to just suck it up.”
Over the years Stossel had grown skilled at hiding his problem. “I was a closet stutterer,” he says, who tried acupuncture, hypnosis and even transcendental meditation to cure his speech, to no avail. The Chicago native started working as a journalist in 1969 “by accident” he says. When he was asked to step in front of the camera, he made sure to edit his own clips and tried to avoid all words that started with the letters “b” and “d”-his problem sounds-though speech therapists frown upon that technique. “Shuffling words just makes you more afraid of the sound,” Stossel admits, talking from the Manhattan apartment he shares with wife Ellen and kids Lauren, 24, and Max, 20. “It makes the problem worse.”
Stossel experienced that firsthand in 1973 when he was thrust onto the air live on a Portland, Ore., network. “I had to say ‘dollars,'” he recalls. “There’s no real synonym for it and I couldn’t get the word out. They had to cut me off because I couldn’t finish.” Humiliated and demoralized, “I wanted to give up,” he says. Instead he took a job in New York City but avoided high-profile stories in favor of consumer-affairs pieces. “I didn’t want to be at a press conference trying to shout questions. I’d fail,” he says. “I was ashamed for people to see me struggle.”
That included his eventual 20/20 coanchor Walters. Although Stossel had completed intensive speech therapy before joining ABC, he still found himself struggling, both with the occasional stutter and anxiety. “I really wanted to be perfect, working with Barbara, because you don’t want to have to do a retake and waste her time,” he says. Once, when he flubbed a line three times in a row, “I was sweaty, angry, cursing myself,” he says. Walters says she never noticed. “He was very conscious of his stutter, worried about it,” she recalls. “But he was always very professional.”
Years of practicing speech techniques (which include breathing in before talking, and speaking softly and slowly) have helped build his confidence and limit the problem. “The practice is thunderously boring, but you really have to do it,” he says. “My career was on the line.”
When he joined Fox Business Network last year, he knew it was time to put up or shut up. “Almost everything is live. I had to face it,” he says. So far he’s done just that. “The other day I tripped over the word ‘video,'” he admits, skipping a bit on the “v” sound. “But I bet most people didn’t even notice it.”