OPINION: Spreading misinformation to scare people about the economy

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By MARK SUMNER
Daily Kos

Prices are up. That’s absolutely true. Inflation has increased since the beginning of 2021 at a rate unmatched since 2009. But that’s what happens every time a Democratic president drags the economy back out of the ditch where a Republican administration left it. It’s not, as the media seems to be insisting, a sign of the apocalypse.

Three weeks ago, CNN ran a segment that was supposedly about how families are “constrained by inflation” and that this is putting “a burden” on their lives. In the segment, CNN’s Brianna Keilar throws over to reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro with an expression of deep concern about how inflation is affecting how families “feed their kids.” McMorris-Santoro, handily standing in front of a gas station sign, moves directly into how gas is “up by more than a dollar since last year” without noting that the prices in 2020 were heavily depressed by the pandemic. He then goes on to interview his typical American family in Texas—who have nine kids and buy 12 gallons of milk each week.

Most of the criticism about the story has focused on that astounding number. Any family that buys 48 gallons of milk each month is pretty far from typical in our 1.23 children per family on average society. But that’s not the problem. And it’s not just CNN.

MISINFORMATION WITHOUT CORRECTION
The problem with that original report on CNN isn’t the family, and it’s not their fondness for milk. The problem is how McMorris-Santoro enthusiastically passes along misinformation without correction.

“I think that probably in June, a dollar was worth a dollar,” says the mother in the interview. “And now that dollar is worth about seventy cents.”

The inflation rate over the last few months may have been higher than Americans are used to over the last decade, but a dollar in June was actually worth about $0.97. The actual rate of inflation is 10 times smaller than the number that was passed along with the comment. McMorris-Santoro doesn’t make that correction.

Then comes that citation for a gallon of milk, with a claim that it was $1.99 at some unstated time in the past, but is now $2.79. Both of those prices are not only well below the average cost of a gallon of milk in America, the lower value hasn’t been seen since around 1994.

The truth is that milk prices are almost completely divorced from inflation. That’s because they are set by Federal Milk Marketing Orders that were last revised in 2000. That system generates a complex, regional pricing system that results in milk being extremely cheap in the upper Midwest, with prices increasing as you move away from that area — to sites such as Texas. Stores can, and do, advertise and sell milk at lower prices. They do this as a loss leader to bring people into the store. But the actual cost of milk now is lower than it has been for most of the last two decades.

DISTORTIONS AND OMISSIONS
None of this gets explained. Instead, McMorris-Santoro goes to lengths to point out the large consumption of this exceptionally large family. If the numbers provided are accurate, all that milk works out to about $10 a week in extra expense. Or $40 a month.

However, McMorris-Santoro completely fails to mention that even if the one child the family is fostering isn’t included, they would still be receiving at least $2,000 a month in new child tax credits that President Joe Biden began issuing in July. That’s right. June, the month that is set up in the interview as the Last Good Month before things went to hell, was actually the last month before they began getting monthly benefits as large as their family.

Inflation over that period wasn’t 30 percent. It was three percent. Milk prices over that period didn’t go up 80 cents nationally, they went up by just 11 cents. And all of that was a blip compared to the $2,000 check that began rolling out to the family in the interview every single month. But that’s not how it got presented.

“Grocery shopping means tough choices right now,” voices McMorris-Santoro.

That’s followed by a statement from the father in the interview who says, “We’re not buying the most healthy stuff, because [the] prices have gone way up. I feel kind of guilty that we can’t afford the good things to be healthy also.”

The remainder of the piece focuses on how the family has to clip coupons, look for bargains and bypass things they’d like to have. That’s before the final statement in which we’re told that their total bill — $310 — would have been “$150 or $200” back in March. In other words, the CNN story is now pushing the idea that there has been 107 percent inflation since March. No one corrects this. In fact, McMorris-Santoro doubles down, saying that the family is “feeling the inflation squeeze to a tune of an extra hundred dollars a week.”

They’re not. But even if they were, they would be coming out $400 a week ahead thanks to those child tax credits. So why aren’t they able to buy their kids healthier food than they were buying in June?

The reason this interview became infamous may be for the 12 gallons of milk, but it should be disdained for using the Big Two distortions when it comes to selling Americans on a disaster that didn’t happen.

It treats the exceptional as if it’s average.

It passes along gross exaggerations without correction.

And all that would be true even if the child tax credit is ignored. Which it shouldn’t be.

(Mark Sumner is a field geologist and a contributing editor at the political web site Daily Kos, where he writes on issues of science, the environment, and the economy. Reprinted from AlterNet.org. See the full article at alternet.org/2021/11/nyt-cnn-inflation.)

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