Add the obesity epidemic to the growing list of things including, most notably, global warming, the existence of which the media no longer question. Given the nearly ubiquitous use of the term, viewers of mainstream news broadcasts could have little doubt that there is indeed an epidemic of overweight threatening young and old alike in the US. And, the media have helpfully identified, if not the cause at least the principal contributory factor behind this epidemicfood producers who have the temerity to advertise. As Syler put it: Hey, before we get started, let me just remind folks that your organization (CSPI) is the group that pointed out the hidden fat in popcorn and in Mexican food, and now you're going after fast-food marketing, specifically that that targets children. What is your ultimate goal?
Mr. Michael Jacobson (Executive Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest): Our goal is to protect kids from the junk-food marketers and promote kids' health. I mean, we have such a tremendous problem with obesity in this country that leads to high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, so--just terrible diseases, and all kinds of other problems. We've got to protect kids. Instead, our country has allowed junk-food marketers, and not just fast-food companies, but sugary cereals, candy bars, chips, all kinds of things that are low in vitamins and minerals and high in calories, to target kids. They do iton Saturday morning television, they have vending machines in schoolspractically every brand-name product has a Web site and kids-oriented products have Web sites that have games and other things to entice kids and get kids to want those products, and then they put the products everywhere--fast-food outlets, everywhere. It's--shopping centers, airports, even inthousands of schools. Our society has to stop that.
Now one would think good journalism would prompt Ms. Syler to inquire as to what facts backing up the litany of assertions regarding the evil of junk-food marketers above. But she allows the junk, so to speak, to just lay there and moves on: Right, she says. But shouldn't shoulders--parents shoulder at least a portion of this responsibility? I mean, I--I'm the mother of a seven-year-old daughter who cannot... afford a $3 Happy Meal and she can't drive herself to McDonald's, so doesn't some of the responsibility stop right here? An excellent point; but Jacobson, of course, has the answer to that:
It does, and parents do have a big responsibility, but all of this marketing puts parents in a very unfair position. Companies are going directly to kids and saying, 'Eat this, eat this, drink this, drink this, it's yummy, you'll love it,' and parents have to say, 'No, no, no, no, no.' And how many parents want to say 'No' a thousand times?
Syler persists, momentarily, in sticking up for the responsibility of parents: But--but isn't that our job as a parent, though, is to--to...make sure that our children do eat healthy, that they make the right choices, that we set a good example for them, I mean, and that we do say no at appropriate times? That makes sense, or it used to. However groups like CSPI and other anti-industry advocates seek to shift blame, always, for personal decisions away from actual decision makers. Emphasizing personal responsibility deemphasizes the role of advocates and government and that simply will not do.
Yeah, we should--yeah, we should do all that, admits Jacobson, but it's totally unfair to allow these big companies who use the slickest advertising techniques they can devise to go around us, to undermine us, to go directly to our kids and say, 'Hey, Johnny, don't you want to eat junk food? Don't you want--it's so good.' That's simply unfair. Twenty-five years ago, the government tried to get junk-food advertising off of children's television, but they were stopped by the toy industry, the--the food industry, the broadcasting industry and the advertising industry. It's time to take another crack at that...[and]...get Congress to look at this issue and protect our kids' health.
If Jacobson and his ilk have their way, Big Nanny Government is going to take over the role formerly played by parentsthat of responsible adults. And, were left with the impression that Syler is fine with that. All right. Michael Jacobson, thank you for your time. I don't think anyone would disagree that it'scertainly a noble pursuit, but--thank you for your time. Actually, Syler needed to qualify that statement by modifying it: no one in the media seems to disagree.
Take for example, Christy Feig, CNN Correspondent: Toys that market fast food, games that promote candy, snacks tied to movies or sports figures, these are just some of the marketing techniques condemned by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Seemingly everything marketed to children is just part of the effort to make them obese. Once again Michael Jacobson is provided a megaphone, this time on CNN DayBreak, also the morning of November 11:
Parents have a virtually impossible job when manufacturers, retailers and restaurants use every trick in the book to hook kids on their brands of processed foods. There you have it; parents might as well give up. And CNN is toeing the party line. DayBreak began with an introduction that set an obvious tone as Carol Costello, CNN Anchor warned parents: If you are getting ready to fix the kids breakfast, listen to this, public health experts say nearly five million children are overweight. One public watchdog group says the marketing techniques by some food makers only add to the problem.
Feig ads: Jacobson says these types of ads are bombarding children from every direction and that's driving the obesity epidemic in children, and then turns to another advocate for confirmation:
Mary Story, University of Minnesota: For every $1 spent by the USDA on child nutrition education, $10 is spent by the food industry promoting sugary foods, high fat snacks, soft drinks. Seig fails to mention that Mary Story is the former chair of the American Public Health Associations Food and Nutrition Section Executive Board for 2003. APHA has been a close ally of CSPI in lobbying for tighter controls on advertising and media access by the food and beverage industry, and increased government spending on and control over healthcare.
CNN provided the other side slim opportunity to defend itself; just a typical rebuttal framed to place the industry representative in the worst possible light. But the industry says there is no evidence these ads are influencing what children eat, says CNNs Feig:
Lisa Katic, Grocery Manufacturers of America: They imply that, you know,
using Saturday morning TV as a way to advertise is only on food. In fact that's not true. Most of the ads are, you know, on video games or toys or, you know, other things that appeal to children. Perhaps in the interest of fairness, Feig and CNN might have suggested a retake of that unfortunate statement. Instead, as is often the case,the industry had its shot, and missed, after which Feig provides a dismissive summary: They also say obesity is a complex issue and trying to single out advertising as the cause is missing the point. On the morning of November 11, viewers would have gotten no point other than there is an obesity epidemic and the majority of those interviewed blamed the food industry.
The same morning that CNN blamed obesity on food producers, Katie Couric on NBCs Today Show discussed the idea of declaring obesity a disease. And, after much discussion of the benefits of that approachnamely making health insurance providers pay for whatever treatments the obese may demandthe primary advocate had the temerity to assure viewers that personal responsibility wasnt being diminished:
Couric asks a very good question: might it be easier for overweight people to say, 'Hey, it's a disease. I can't do anything about it'?
Morgan Downey, Executive Director of the American Obesity Association: No. Personal responsibility is always going to be part of the equation with any kind of treatment that helps address the question. It's the same thing we have for a whole host of other chronic diseases that interact between medical care and behavioral change.
No matter where they land on the dial, viewers are increasingly treated to a media approach that takes for granted that childhood obesity is at epidemic levels, despite the fact that there is no small amount of controversy regarding such an assertion. Obesity advocates assert that about 15% of children are obese. Those who are more skeptical state, correctly, that the advocates own number5 million overweight childrensuggests less than 6 percent of children are overweight, a term that is not synonymous with obese, which is defined as being more than 20% overweight. More startling is the assertion that 80% of adults are overweighta statistic much more alarming than the data indicating fewer than one third are more than 20% overweight, which is the point that triggers medical concern.
The morning of November 3, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Correspondent informed viewers that the politicians of liberal bent are intent on passing legislation requiring nutritional information on restaurant menus. That's if one U.S. congresswoman has her way, says Gupta. Representative Rosa DeLauro says laws must be passed to fight the obesity epidemic and also the $117 billion health care tab that comes with it.
Notable is the growing acceptance by the media of the $117 billion health care tab owing, we are to understand, to the obesity epidemic. It is this sort of dripobesity epidemic, a disease, not personal habits, government intervention because the industry wont reform itselfthat is gaining currency and framing the issue for the public. As for the cost of the epidemic, who knows? Media reports have featured a range, from $70 billion to $120 billion. Few in the media bother to ask the question they should: if these costs are being paid now, what is to be gained by socializing them? No discussion ensues regarding the possibility that socializing the costs of obesity may have the same effect that socializing other medical costs has had on health care costs in general.
As Gupta pointed out on the DayBreak show of November 4, restaurants oppose the menu legislation because they anticipate its translation into increased liability from lawsuits by consumer advocates who are not interested in health so much as profits. And the obesity epidemic is now assuming a causal effect: Dr. Emily Senay, a reporter for CBSs Early Show, had the following to say: Type II diabetes is really linked to the obesity epidemic. In the old days, we used to call Type II diabetes adult-onset. We can't call it that anymore, Rene, for the simple fact that kids are now starting to get Type II diabetes because of the overweight in our children.
Rene Syler, co-host, went on to reinforce the idea: Is that what's happening, Emily, because so many people are obese or overweight? Is that why we're seeing so many more cases of diabetes? The doctor-reporter agrees: You're exactly right. And we're talking about all of this because of the obesity epidemic. That is why we're hearing so much more about Type II diabetes. Again, a lack of scientific integrityreinforced by the mediacontributes to the widespread propagation of a myth that is now festering into fact: diabetes is caused by obesity. In fact, the science is clear: as society has grown more sedentaryaverse to exercisewe have become more obese and the genetic triggers of diabetes and a host of other diseases related to obesity are firing in greater numbers. Unfortunately however, eliminating obesity will not eliminate diabetes; not that any of the prescriptions proffered by the advocates are designed, even in theory, to reduce, much less eliminate obesity.
The media prefer the exotic scenariosevil food peddlers addicting us to fat and sugar, turning little children into slobs and condemning them to misery. This scenario combines all the things the media believe: businessmen behave badly, government can rescue us and punish the evildoers. In the process, victimhood is reinforced and personal responsibility is out the windoweat up! Its not your fault.
Next: How to do it right. In October ABC broadcast a SPECIAL REPORT: "Fat Like Me, How to Win the Weight War." We want to complement a job well done, and we will show the contrast with the journalism outlined above. It began this way:
Hello, I'm Meredith Vieira. Over the past 20 years, the percent of overweight children has doubled, and among teens, tripled. More importantly, their lives are in jeopardy. For the first time, we're raising a generation of Americans whose life expectancy may actually be shorter than that of their parents. Tonight, ABC News has joined Rodale, the publisher of "Prevention" and "Men's Health" magazines, to help America's children and their parents win the war on weight. We want to tell you how we got here and what you can do to protect your children from the physical and psychological effects of obesity. We begin with a journey into the world of overweight children through the eyes of a slender teen, who, until now, has never felt the pain, isolation and alienation they experience everyday at school and even at home.