It's a familiar script: parade a poor single mom in front of the cameras and pull on the heartstrings a little. Finish up with the pitch for more government entitlements.
The July 28 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News served as a public relations vehicle for expanding the government's food stamp program. Reporter (or was she an advocate?) Jennifer London packed her story with sympathetic imagery, concerned Democrats and a little child with no milk for her cereal.
London's story was part of a report on the House of Representatives passing a massive farm subsidy package. The package includes a provision to increase food stamp funding for the first time in a decade. Anchor Lester Holt set up the pitch for increasing government spending with his lead-in: “It's funding that could face tough opposition when the Senate takes up the bill, but as Jennifer London reports, while politicians wrangle over funds, there are families facing tough choices just to put food on the table.”
London introduced the piece by featuring a single mom who doesn't work “because she suffers from multiple sclerosis and asthma. To help feed her family, she receives food stamps, but $82 a month only goes so far.”
The mom shared that when she sits down to pay her bills she cries and wonders which one not to pay. She shared that her young son was hungry the night before. The mom says she receives $20 a week in food stamps, but needs $100.
The story progressed from “reporting” the facts of this woman's case to a full-court press to increase spending for food stamps.
London: “Food pantries can be a place of last resort for many of the 26 million Americans who receive food stamps. The amount, which averages $21 a week, hasn't changed since 1996. And that's part of the problem. According to Jean Ross with the California Budget Project, they want Congress to increase the monthly benefit to keep pace with inflation.”
The California Budget Project (CBP) claims to be nonpartisan, but its Web site reveals that the group leans dramatically left, calling for government-funded support on a whole host of issues.
After hearing from the CBP, London presented footage of two politicians, one from New York and the other from Oregon, who “spent a week trying to live off food stamps and discovered what [a recipient] already knows.”
Oregon's governor, Democrat Ted Kulongoski, was shown shopping and saying, “There's an awful lot of citizens who, from no fault of their own, actually need these programs.”
After that sympathetic liberal sound bite, London moaned, “Still, the future of the food stamp program is unclear. Many Republicans are against a Democratic proposed tax hike to fund an increase in monthly benefits, while others question the merits of the entire program. Then came a harsh-sounding statement from conservative Heritage Foundation analyst Robert Rector: “The food stamp program is a one-way handout that does not require constructive behavior on the part of able-bodied adult recipients.”
After Rector raised the specter of personal responsibility, NBC cut back to the mom's kitchen, where she wiped away tears and said, “Not all of us are bad people and take advantage of the system.”
London didn't leave it at that, though. The last image was of mom giving her youngest child some dry cereal. The reporter's voiceover lamented, “She insists she's not milking the system. She just wants enough for her children's cereal.”
The emotional manipulation in the story was palpable. The only voice heard opposing an increase in government spending was juxtaposed against sympathetic voices and images to make him seem almost heartless. London did not explain the proposed tax hike that would fund the increase. She did not set the increased funding in terms of what it would do to the federal budget deficit. She did not report on the rampant abuses of the system or the culture of dependency that entitlement programs can foster.
No. London made the case for increasing food stamp funding by flaunting a sick single mom whose children don't have milk for their cereal. Nice storytelling. Terrible reporting.
Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the MediaResearchCenter.