Networks Serve as Deputy for Food Police
â€śWeâ€™ll look at whoâ€™s to blame for the stuff you put in your body.â€ť
Thatâ€™s not an exaggeration of the mediaâ€™s view of the â€śfood policeâ€™sâ€ť efforts to regulate American food. Thatâ€™s how CNNâ€™s Jennifer Westhoven plugged an upcoming story about an anti-Kentucky Fried Chicken lawsuit on the June 17 â€śIn the Money.â€ť
By airing numerous stories on the anti-food-industry antics of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the media lend credence to the idea that restaurants and the government are responsible for what you eat. Whether itâ€™s Starbucks frappuccinos or crispy chicken, CSPI peddles the notion that the food devils are making you do it â€“ and the networks eat it up.
In fact, the mainstream media have embraced the â€śfood policeâ€ť agenda so wholeheartedly that some unabashedly heap praise on CSPIâ€™s efforts.
Perhaps the most blatant example was the May 3 â€śEarly Showâ€ť on CBS. Co-host Julie Chen welcomed CSPI founder and director Michael Jacobson with accolades for his work getting non-diet sodas out of public schools. â€śCongratulations,â€ť Chen said. â€śI know youâ€™ve been working on this deal for a very long time.â€ť
Chen added that â€śthis is definitely a step in the right direction.â€ť Later, she gushed: â€śMr. Jacobson, itâ€™s definitely one bold step. So congratulations on that.â€ť Jacobson replied: â€śItâ€™s a great move forward, yes.â€ť Chen: â€śIt sure is.â€ť
In the past six months, from January 10 to July 10, CSPI netted more stories on network news than the nationâ€™s official nutrition watchdog, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) when it came to regular food issues such as obesity, nutrition and organic products (not counting bird flu and mad cow disease). CSPI appeared 14 times on ABC, CBS and NBC news shows. USDA appeared only 10 times.
On its Web site, CSPI describes itself as â€śa consumer advocacy organization whose twin missions are to conduct innovative research and advocacy programs in health and nutrition, and to provide consumers with current, useful information about their health and well-being.â€ť However, it goes far beyond conducting research and providing information with its threatening lawsuits and aggressive lobbying for more government regulations.
But on the networks and CNN in the past six months, CSPI was most often labeled a â€śconsumer groupâ€ť (6 times), as well as a â€śnonprofit group,â€ť â€śconsumer health groupâ€ť and â€śhealth advocacy group.â€ť
ABCâ€™s Elisabeth Leamy referred to the group twice as â€śachieving changeâ€ť by suing members of the restaurant industry.
â€śBy law, all packaged foods now have to contain nutrition information, but the FDA just doesnâ€™t have the authority to force restaurants to do the same,â€ť Leamy said on the June 19 â€śGood Morning America.â€ť â€śSo, CSPI is hoping to shame them into it. Lately, the group has been achieving change by taking restaurants to court.â€ť
One of CSPIâ€™s recent efforts has been fighting trans fats in Kentucky Fried Chickenâ€™s foods. But Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman did some digging about CSPI and showed how its own words now strike an ironic chord.
In his June 18 column, Chapman related: â€śBack in 1988, when CSPI was demanding that McDonaldâ€™s stop using beef tallow to cook French fries, it dismissed worries about trans-fat-laden hydrogenated cooking oil.â€ť
He then quoted CSPIâ€™s â€™80s-era logic, as they explained it then: â€śAll told, the charges against trans fat just donâ€™t stand up. And by extension, hydrogenated oils seem relatively innocent.â€ť
The New York Times reported on June 14 that â€śtrans fats became a part of fast-food meals in the 1980s, after consumer groups demanded that the chains stop frying in beef tallow and palm oils because those products are highly saturated.â€ť However, it did not name CSPI as one of those â€śconsumer groups.â€ť
Some CNN reporters, even while giving CSPI continued exposure, did ask some personal-responsibility questions.
On the June 17 â€śIn the Money,â€ť Andy Serwer played responsibility advocate, saying â€śCanâ€™t people just simply decide what to eat and what not to eat and not go out and sue fast food companies?â€ť CNNMoney.com Managing Editor Allen Wastler added: â€śAnd suits like this are actually trying to regulate, through litigation â€“ which seems to me an odd way to go about it if your issue is with the FDA, take it to the FDA. Itâ€™s my choice to go to the KFC and have the meal.â€ť
Back in January, CNNâ€™s â€śShowbiz Tonightâ€ť took on the idea of advertising sugary foods on TV. Co-host A.J. Hammer asked CSPIâ€™s Jacobson on the January 19 show: â€śWell, Mike, that brings up the point that usually comes up when these sort of cases come up. Isnâ€™t it the parentsâ€™ responsibility to monitor what their kids are reading and watching? And after all, itâ€™s not the kids who are slapping down the credit cards at the supermarkets. They may be tugging on the shirts of the parents, but, you know, is that worth a lawsuit?â€ť
Hammer actually got Jacobson to admit that â€śyes, parents bear the ultimate responsibility.â€ť
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