Monday, June 7, 2010

Limbaugh, Thomas, and Food Deserts

A diet of ramblings for today:

Rush Limbaugh and Elton John

A lot of people are clucking about Sir Elton's $1 million gig for playing at Rush Limbaugh's fourth wedding this past weekend in Palm Beach. A flamboyant gay guy from England tickling the ivories for one of America's most arrogant conservatives and serial marriage advocates... Hmmm...

I've never liked Rush Limbaugh, nor have I ever understood the hysteria over Elton John, so in that regard, whether either one of them gains or loses credibility with me over this joint venture of theirs is a mute point.

But to all of America's conservatives out there who have ignored Limbaugh's previous three marriages and dismiss his past drug addiction as an aberration, I have to ask: what is it about Limbaugh's personal life that validates what he pontificates on his radio show?

Helen Thomas Retiring after Blasting Jews

Sure, at 89, the once-venerable queen of the White House press briefing room probably had become more of a peculiarity than a legitimate reporter, so her retirement today from the Hearst Corporation doesn't come as a surprise. In recent years, she had leveraged her press corps longevity into some semblance of notoriety, which she co-opted to make caustic comments and share her blunt opinions on a variety of issues, enjoying the demise of media's old credo that reporters should tell the news, not be the news.

But to hear that both her agent and Hearst pressured Thomas to "retire" after what were, admittedly, troubling comments she made about Israel, Palestine, and emigrants to Israel seems puzzling: are reporters entitled to their own opinions or not? Are reporters not entitled to be stupid in how they express those viewpoints? To what extent are media outlets - who created a celebrity out of Thomas by virtue of her seniority - culpable by giving her the platform from which to spout her vitriol?

I don't agree with anything Thomas has said about Israel in particular and Jews in general. But it seems like the vehement castigation of Thomas by the Jewish community, which apparently led to Thomas' forced retirement, is just the type of suppressive retaliation that represents the antithesis of free press and free speech. Thomas wasn't a diplomat, bureaucrat, or politician; she wasn't expressing national policy, she was giving her own take on a story from her perspective as a seasoned, hard-core news junkie. So what if she thinks Israel needs to "get the h--- out" of Palestine?

If retirement is indeed the best way for Thomas to exit this ugly scene, then so be it. But hasn't the issue of rubber-mouthed reporters gotten at least a little more grim? And even if you don't think that's a bad thing, what does this say about the trajectory of free press and free speech in our country?

Food Desert Reporting

Last week, I watched a piece on fast food and bad nutrition in rural Mississippi on PBS' Newshour. Ever since Michelle Obama launched her get-fit initiative after becoming First Lady, I've wondered how such noble goals as proper nutrition and lowering childhood obesity might get twisted by the liberal political machine. Newshour reporter Betty Ann Bowser didn't allay many of my concerns.

"Food deserts" occur when supermarkets and restaurants either stay out of poor neighborhoods or only offer unhealthy food options. By doing so, they contribute to residents' deprivation of access to fresh fruits and vegetables upon which healthy diets can be maintained. In these neighborhoods, any foodstuffs that are sold tend to be of low quality and discouragingly high prices. If there are restaurants, they generally are of the fast-food, high-grease variety. In her story, Bowser tried to explain how similar food deserts in notoriously poor Mississippi towns contribute to high obesity rates.

At first glance, the connection between obesity and the lack of healthy foods in these communities is a no-brainer. Sure enough, I've lived in a crime-ridden, poverty-stricken neighborhood in Brooklyn, and at the time, what stores did exist stocked plenty of junk food, but only a few bananas (which the Puerto Ricans fried anyway). The neighborhood's only grocery store tried to carry fresh produce, but since it was only a small local chain with no ability to compete against bigger players in the city's produce warehouses, we inevitably got what the bigger chains didn't want. Indeed, Bowser and others who paint a complex picture for the conundrum of food islands are correct in asserting that its causes are varied and entrenched.

Yet in her piece, Bowser shows a McDonald's drive-through menu where the standard listing for salads is covered over with a sign that says salads aren't available at this location. But why would a franchise of the world's largest fast-food chain be unable to carry salads, just because it's stuck in the middle of poor, rural Mississippi? Is lettuce that much more costly to transport than hamburgers?

Of course not! The reason this McDonald's didn't carry salads is surely a simple marketing decision. Their customers obviously don't want to buy the salads. If their customers stopped buying French fries, don't you think the owners of this McDonald's franchise would take them off the menu? Sure, they would.

Hmmm... so what does this say about food deserts when customers for this McDonald's don't want salads? Maybe the free market concept is working more effectively than liberal anti-obesity pundits want to admit?

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