The "obesity epidemic" is the fault of poor individual choices and sedentary lifestyles, but in the news, blame typically falls on companies, rather than on the individual. CNN has attacked grocer stores, restaurants and food manufacturers for creating supposedly "addictive" products and in story after story called for more food regulations, taxes or other intervention.
CNN's hearty appetite for food control has gone on for years. They've waged a war on obesity all while promoting government meddling like higher taxes on drinks made with "cheap" corn syrup to fight the "obesity epidemic," health zoning prohibiting fast food restaurants from South L.A. and trans-fat bans just for starters. CNN even criticized supermarkets for wanting customers to buy products from them, back in 2006.
The cable network often tries to jar viewers with hyperbolic reports like a February 2007 one about "Extreme Eating." That story sounded just like a press release from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a food police group that has attacked nearly every imaginable food and beverage. That day CNN's Greg Hunter brought CSPI on and supported their call for mandatory nutrition labels on menus.
"[T]hey should put the numbers on the menu too," O'Brien declared after Hunter said that UNO Chicago Grill would be trans-fat free by the end of 2007.
Fast forward to March 2010 and CNN finally got its restrictive wish thanks to President Obama's health care reform bill.
Any restaurant with 20 or more locations will now have to post calorie counts on menus, menu boards and drive-thru signs under the supervision of the Food and Drug administration. Vending machines will also be subject to the new rule.
The Business & Media Institute was unable to obtain a cost estimate for determining nutrition information or for changing menus and signage of all restaurants facing the new mandate, but an Orange County Business Journal story from 2009 included businesspeople worried about a similar mandate in California.
The CEO of Wahoo's Fish Taco, Mingo Lee told OCBJ the change would likely be a "huge financial burden" for restaurant chains. The same article expressed fear of potential lawsuits. Mike Rule, a California attorney representing restaurant operators, told the paper the California "law contains a number of uncertainties that could lead to the potential for future litigation."
CNN's Kyra Phillips reported the new federal regulation which had been included in the enormous $938 billion "reform" package on March 23. Phillips said, "supporters say the new law will provide consumers with better information in the fight against obesity."
Phillips didn't bother mentioning any criticism of the regulation such as its cost to struggling American businesses or remind viewers that every person is responsible for his or her own food choices. Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain and national chairman of the Business & Media Institute said, "It is just another cost passed onto the consumer for an unnecessary regulation."
Nevertheless, CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who was tapped by the Obama administration for the surgeon general position (he turned it down) and has supported obesity taxes in the past, welcomed the new menu labeling requirements. He also failed to find critics of the legislation March 27 on his show "Sanjay Gupta, MD."
He should have asked the St. Petersburg Times for help. They found Nick Vojnovic, president of 250-store Beef 'O' Brady's who said, "We'll do what consumers want, but you spend a lot to get nutritional information, but what about your one cook who uses an extra dollop of mayo?"
"If the government thinks this can reduce obesity, labels on packaged foods didn't," Vojnovic concluded.
ABCNews.com also found a Chicago chef opposed to the new law although it won't apply to him - yet. Didier Durand owns Cyrano's Bistrot and was interviewed by "Nightline" while preparing a delicious chicken dish with lots of butter. Durand told ABC he had "no idea" how many calories are in the dish and he could never maintain an accurate calorie count.
"In my kitchen, I put a pinch of that, a little of this, just never the same, so I think that will never be really accurate," he explained. Durand leads an organization of independent restaurants who want to "keep police out of the kitchen," according to ABC.
But even the new menu labeling wasn't sufficient for CNN. In the past week famous chef Jamie Oliver has hyped the threat of obesity on several of their shows and condemned evil "processed" foods, Gupta has interviewed a 250-pound 12-year-old and people on the cable channel called for further government spending and intervention.
Hyping the Obesity Crisis
"It's that kind of food that's killing America," Oliver said in a clip from his new ABC television show "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution." Oliver was criticizing a Huntington, W.Va. school for serving processed foods including pizza, burgers, corn dogs and chicken nuggets. He proclaimed such things would kill the children.
Oliver's show may air on ABC, but the famous English chef was all over CNN in the past week appearing on "Larry King Live," "Campbell Brown," and "Anderson Cooper 360."
The chef claimed that such eating would reduce the lifespan of children and lead to them having shorter lives than their parents. Gupta made a similar in a segment about an extremely obese 12-year-old name Tiger Greene. Greene weighed 250 pounds before he started making changes.
"As a father of three it's especially hard for me to hear these stories. Children - dying far earlier than they should. In some cases their lives cut short by decades," Gupta warned as began his story about the Greenes.
It turns out the claim about shorter lifespans was based on a Kaiser Permanente study about extreme obesity in children. But Kaiser's own press release expressed less certainty than Gupta and Oliver:
"This publication is only the beginning. Now we are trying to quantify the health risks and long-term effects associated with extreme obesity, determine which groups are affected most, and develop strategies for population care management to reduce these health risks. Children's health is important and we have a long way to go," the study's lead author Corinna Koebnick said.
Oliver's experiences in W. Va., and Gupta's interview with the Greenes were both extreme examples, and while they were distressing they are not the norm. A 250-pound 12-year-old is the exception, not the rule according to CDC data.
A 2004 release from CDC put the median weight of a 12-year-old boy at 110.9 pounds - less than half of Tiger's weight. At least Gupta exposed the personal choices that led to such obesity.
Tiger said that for lunch "I have like a big 15-ounce steak or something and like five Sprites and stuff like that." Dinner was "lunch times five."
Gupta mildly chastised Tiger's family saying it's "important to realize that Tiger didn't get here by himself. He had help from the people who care the most." Barely a rebuke from a cable network that regularly blasts restaurants and other businesses for selling products they deem unhealthy.
The problem with such extreme examples is that they instill fear in viewers and perpetuate the need for government regulation and other actions rather than demanding personal responsibility and embracing individual freedom.
$4.5 Billion Is ‘Rude,' ‘Disrespectful,' and ‘Won't do Anything'
Oliver wasn't just teaching families in W.Va. about healthy foods, on CNN he was calling for more government action. He told "Larry King Live" viewers he wanted to see "compulsory" food education in elementary schools and cooking in high school. But he also wanted money - taxpayer money to be exact. He promoted a "nutrition" bill waiting on Congressional approval.
"I'm very worried about Congress. You know yesterday a whole load of work got done. $4.5 billion over a 10-year period is embarrassing, is rude, is disrespectful. It won't do anything. You know to think that $4.5 billion to help the child nutrition and the obesity across all the schools in America over 10 years, compared to $7 billion in a month in Iraq," Oliver said on King's program March 25 (rebroadcast March 28).
"We need more funds," Oliver repeated. Before bringing his "Food Revolution" to America, the chef badgered the British government into devoting $1 billion more per year to its school lunch program.
Michael Moynihan of Reason.TV created a video expose of Oliver's revolution and took aim at the British chef's premise - that school lunches are "killing" American children.
"Kids in America are fat, they're not fat because of school lunch. School lunches could be better but if we have $5 billion to spend I've got a lot of things I want to spend it on that will improve the lives of kids before we get some organic kale on their lunch tray," Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward said in the video.
Mangu-Ward also pointed out that the government is responsible for both the nutritional standards of those lunches and for the very food supplied in many cases.
CNN's "American Morning" was also seeking a little government assistance March 29. Co-host John Roberts interviewed Mari Gallagher of the National Center for Public Research about solving the problem of "food deserts."
"Food deserts," according to Gallagher are places that do not have supermarkets or grocery store options. It didn't take long for Roberts to ask about the government's role.
ROBERTS: Mari, how do you convince supermarkets to come in to these areas? And does the government play any role?
GALLAGHER: Well, the government can play a very good role. The market needs to play a role. Grocers are interested in figuring out the food desert dilemma if you will.
There's lots of different reasons why we have this problem. Margins are very tight for grocers. Some grocers left different kinds of markets, you know, 10, 20, even 30 years ago.
GALLAGHER: Even in the food desert, sometimes the cost of land is expensive. So putting these deals together can be difficult. But, you know, people do eat. There is a market for food. And so that's what we need to do is figure out how to get mainstream grocery stores into this type of market and certainly the government can help with incentives and lots of other folks can help, too.