CBS Follows NYT, Warns More Going on Food Stamps Than Since '60s

Monday's New York Times hyped a dire congressional study, and CBS jumped hours later with a matching story full of anecdotes and relying on the expertise of a left-wing activist -- naturally, unlabeled. “The economic slowdown has left a lot of Americans struggling to pay their bills,” CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric asserted, highlighting how “a congressional report projects a record 28 million will receive food stamps in the coming year.”

Leading into a soundbite from a representative of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, reporter Bill Whitaker ominously intoned: “With jobs declining and prices for basics -- food, fuel, medicine -- on the rise, more Americans are expected to turn to food stamps in the next year than at any time since the program began in the 1960s.”

Whitaker moved on to more emotion, how one woman “is still stretching beans and her budget to feed her four boys and granddaughter,” but “with Congress fighting over funding, millions like” her “won't find much more in the pot.”

The front page New York Times headline over the article by Erik Eckholm, a former Carter administration political appointee: "As Jobs Vanish and Prices Rise, Food Stamp Use Nears Record.”

“That's quite a melodramatic headline,” the MRC's Clay Waters observed in a TimesWatch analysis of the Times story, taking on the headline's claim of vanishing jobs which CBS copied with a reference to declining jobs:
For one thing, what "vanishing jobs"? The national unemployment rate for February was 4.8 percent, unchanged from January. The headline writer's source seems to be a Congressional Budget Office report "citing expected growth in unemployment." No jobs have "vanished" yet, but that doesn't stop the Times.
The March 31 story began:
Driven by a painful mix of layoffs and rising food and fuel prices, the number of Americans receiving food stamps is projected to reach 28 million in the coming year, the highest level since the aid program began in the 1960s...
And how did CBS News find Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities? Eckholm quoted her -- and also failed to label her.

The MRC's Waters noted that Eckholm did cite factors beyond the economic slowdown, reasons CBS didn't bother to mention, “such as the fact that governments are actually advertising the programs to get more people to use them.”

CBS has a long history of hyping and exaggerating the level of hunger in America. A brief trip down memory lane:

The May 2, 2006 NewsBusters post by Rich Noyes/May 3, 2006 MRC CyberAlert item, “CBS: Old People Skipping Food, Medicine Due to High Gas Prices,” recited:
Monday's CBS Evening News inaugurated a new series, "Eye on the Road," the network's latest gimmick to keep people outraged at the high cost of gasoline. Reporter Sharyn Alfonsi is driving from Florida to Boston to find people to complain about the high prices, and she highlighted senior citizens who are ostensibly sacrificing food and medicine because of Big Oil's greediness.

Alfonsi featured a poll taken by the liberal lobbying group AARP to supposedly prove the hardship gas prices are having on the elderly. "They're used to living on fixed incomes," Alfonsi reported, "but now skyrocketing gas prices are forcing seniors to make difficult choices. Some are cutting back on medicine, others say they're eating less."

As she spoke, the screen showed an elderly man getting food from a refrigerator with "AARP Survey" superimposed across the bottom of the screen, plus the words "Cutting Back" followed by "Medicine 6%," then "Food 13%."...
The February 8, 2005 MRC CyberAlert, from back in the Dan Rather days, “Nets, Especially CBS, Paint 'Cuts' Hurting 'Homeless' & 'Hungry,'" recounted:
All of the media have pounced on the Bush administration's desire to "cut" spending on a few programs, focusing on how some small spending adjustments will hurt the poor, but none more so than CBS on Monday night. Lee Cowan devoted a full story to how "the proposed cuts hit the heartland like a mountain of unwanted news, from the soy bean fields of Iowa...to large cities like Minneapolis, where block grant programs help the homeless and the hungry." Cowan, who failed to cite a single proposed budget number, showcased complaints from food bank and health care workers and, led into a soundbite from the unlabeled Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, by stressing how "critics charge the people these cuts hit the hardest tend to have the weakest political voice."...
The Friday, July 11, 2003 MRC CyberAlert item, “CBS Finds More 'Hunger in the Heartland' -- Once Again in Ohio,” recounted:
A CBS promo on Wednesday night promised a look on Thursday night at “hunger in the heartland,” but it seems that to CBS America’s “heartland” encompasses just two communities in Ohio barely 50 miles apart. Just seven months after 60 Minutes II discovered hunger in Marietta, Ohio, on Thursday night the CBS Evening News delivered a peek at supposed hunger on Logan, Ohio, another community in the Buckeye state’s southeastern region.

CBS’s Cynthia Bowers reported: “Twice a month in this small town on the edge of Appalachia, groceries are given away. You could call it a 'line of the times,’ because in a growing number of American communities making ends meet means waiting for a handout.”

Bowers conveyed an exaggerated claim as fact: “Each year an estimated 30 million Americans go hungry.” In fact, that’s not true. As even the America’s Second Harvest Web site notes, “in 2001, the USDA reported that the number of Americans who were food insecure, or hungry or at risk of hunger, was 33.6 million.” Not that they “go hungry,” but that, as I recall from memory in looking into this in the past, in answering a survey they say that sometime in the past month they were not sure about where to find their next meal or were concerned about not having enough money to buy enough food.

Bowers also portrayed a stark choice between picking of food and the alternative: “So the free food they get free means more money for kids clothing or maybe life saving medicine.”...
The January 10, 2003 MRC CyberAlert posting, “CBS's America Under Bush: Depression-Era Food Lines,” reported (MRC's “Best Notable Quotables of 2003” with two [Part 1, Part 2] streaming Real video clips from this story):
George W. Bush's America as seen by CBS News: Bread lines, reminiscent of the Depression-era, made up of average Americans with jobs. Over video of a long line in Marietta, Ohio, on the January 8 60 Minutes II, Scott Pelley ominously intoned: “The lines we found looked like they’d been taken from the pages of the Great Depression. It's not just the unemployed, we found plenty of people working full-time but still not able to earn enough to keep hunger out the house. If you think you have a good idea of who's hungry in America today, come join the line. You'd never guess who you'd meet there.”

While Pelley never uttered the name George W. Bush once during his 12 minute piece, the implication came through. Pelley noted, for instance, how “since 1999, the number of people getting emergency food aid in Ohio alone has grown from 2 million to 4.5 million.” Pelley contended in relaying the view of a groups which wants more government spending: “Nationwide, the problem is not just in rural scenes like this. The U.S. Conference of Mayors says the need for emergency food aid in major cities jumped 19 percent last year alone."

Pelley's emotions over facts style of reporting included this line: “Pre-schoolers come here with their parents and play in boxes as empty as the day's want-ads."...
Back to this week, the MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video to provide this transcript of the story on the Monday, March 31 CBS Evening News:
KATIE COURIC: The economic slowdown has left a lot of Americans struggling to pay their bills. A congressional report projects a record 28 million will receive food stamps in the coming year. Bill Whitaker has another example of how this economic downturn is hitting home.

BILL WHITAKER: Alyn Luna has been struggling to give her family a better life. But after losing her job as a security guard-

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE SOCIAL WORKER: How long have you been unemployed?

ALYN LUNA, FOOD STAMP RECIPIENT: About three weeks.

WHITAKER: -she did something today she hoped she'd never have to do again: apply for food stamps.

LUNA: If it wasn't for this program, it would be really bad for me right now.

WHITAKER: With jobs declining and prices for basics -- food, fuel, medicine -- on the rise, more Americans are expected to turn to food stamps in the next year than at any time since the program began in the 1960s. Already, demand is up in 43 states. Fourteen have hit record highs. In Michigan, one in every eight residents is on food stamps. One in seven in Kentucky.

STACY DEAN, CENTER ON BUDGET AND POLICY PRIORITIES: Their wages are going down or staying the same while the costs that they have to meet each month are going up. And the squeeze on them is so significant that they can't afford food.

WHITAKER: Anyone working, retired, living near the poverty line -- less than about $28,000 per family of four -- is eligible for the benefits. About $100 per person per month. But even with two jobs and food stamps, Shreel Jackson is still stretching beans and her budget to feed her four boys and granddaughter.

SHREEL JACKSON, FOOD STAMPS RECIPIENT: Because what I get, it helps, but it's not enough. It's not enough. It's not enough.

WHITAKER: But with Congress fighting over funding, millions like Jackson won't find much more in the pot. Bill Whitaker, CBS News, Los Angeles.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center