This is a story about milk, but also about what happens when the press doesn’t do its job
CNN’s no good, very bad segment does not bode well for the future.
I didn’t plan on writing about milk today, but… here we are.
But first, let’s travel back to the year 2010. Barack Obama was the president, and people were stocking up on bags of tea to tie to their revolutionary war-era tri-cornered hats. It was a deeply stupid time in our history… and a sign of things to come.
The Tea Party was a movement driven by a desire for lower taxes (racism, actually), deficit reduction (by which I also mean racism), and a love of the U.S. Constitution (nah, just racism). People would show up to events with buttons with slogans like “T.E.A.: Taxed Enough Already!” and photos of Obama as a witch doctor (real “economic anxiety” vibes). “Stop the bailouts! Stop raising our taxes!” etc.
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In April 2010, just days before the Tea Party would hold tax day rallies around the country, CBS News polled members of the movement. There’s one portion of that survey that stands out to me: “[T]here is a widespread view among Tea Partiers that the President has increased taxes: 64% of Tea Party supporters think the Obama administration has increased taxes for most Americans, while only 34% of the general public says that.”
This was consistent with another more informal poll conducted by David Frum, and written up by Bruce Bartlett in a blog for Forbes:
Tea Partyers also seem to have a very distorted view of the direction of federal taxes. They were asked whether they are higher, lower or the same as when Barack Obama was inaugurated last year. More than two-thirds thought that taxes are higher today, and only 4% thought they were lower; the rest said they are the same.
As noted earlier, federal taxes are very considerably lower by every measure since Obama became president. And given the economic circumstances, it's hard to imagine that a tax increase would have been enacted last year. In fact, 40% of Obama's stimulus package involved tax cuts. These include the Making Work Pay Credit, which reduces federal taxes for all taxpayers with incomes below $75,000 by between $400 and $800.
According to the [Joint Committee on Taxation], last year's $787 billion stimulus bill, enacted with no Republican support, reduced federal taxes by almost $100 billion in 2009 and another $222 billion this year. The Tax Policy Center, a private research group, estimates that close to 90% of all taxpayers got a tax cut last year and almost 100% of those in the $50,000 income range. For those making between $40,000 and $50,000, the average tax cut was $472; for those making between $50,000 and $75,000, the tax cut averaged $522. No taxpayer anywhere in the country had his or her taxes increased as a consequence of Obama's policies.
So, you had a situation where a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress reduced taxes on nearly every person in the country, but the popular argument from Tea Party types essentially boiled down to “nuh-uh! My taxes feel higher!” despite that not being true.
This gets a little into the problem we’re seeing play out today. People are angry about things that aren’t happening, but too many working in mainstream media are — at best — afraid to say so. This happened as angry mobs descended on school boards around the country to demand a stop to the teaching of “critical race theory” to K-12 students. Good luck finding mainstream media outlets that will consistently say that these parents are protesting something that isn’t happening. Instead, you’re more likely to find yourself on the receiving end of a lecture that amounts to “this issue is legitimate because these people aren’t faking their anger, and how dare people tell them what they’re mad about isn’t happening.”
Those of us living in the reality-based world, where things like school curricula and tax rates aren’t a matter of feelings, are pressured to cater to the nonsensical beliefs of others. There are countless examples of this: people are simultaneously angry at Democrats over “critical race theory” and “cancel culture,” despite the fact that the anger over these issues is largely based on nonsense and the responses are at odds with one another (“cancel culture is bad, and Dr. Seuss’ estate deciding to take a handful of books out of print is proof of this… oh, also, we must purge our libraries of books that hurt my feelings.”)
There’s zero consistency in these arguments, which come from the same people who lose their minds over the idea of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” I’ve written about this a number of times. And pointing out the hypocrisy of it all, while cathartic, doesn’t actually do much. The hypocrites have no sense of shame, and as long as mainstream political media is willing to take them at their words, there will never be a reason for them to develop that sense of shame. The press has a responsibility to push back against misinformation, not enable it. And that’s exactly what I witnessed earlier today.
Let’s get to the milk.
This morning, CNN’s New Day ran a story about inflation. Much like wild, propaganda-filled pieces about supply chain management that frame a global problem as being unique to the U.S., CNN’s inflation story functioned as similar propaganda.
The story centers around a trip to the grocery store with Larry and Krista Stotler, a Texas couple with nine children. This… is not your average-sized American family. (The average family size, according to the Census Bureau, is 2.61.) This is absolutely fine, but perhaps not particularly helpful when you’re doing a story meant to illustrate how average families are struggling due to inflation.
Now let’s look at the quote CNN decided to lead with: “A gallon of milk was $1.99. Now it’s $2.79. When you buy 12 gallons a week times four weeks, that’s a lot of money,” said Krista Stotler. People were very quick to point out that a.) that’s a lot of milk, even for a family of 11 (there are 16 8-ounce glasses in a gallon), but more importantly, b.) those price numbers are almost certainly false.
Luckily, it’s pretty easy to fact-check this, as the government heavily subsidizes dairy farmers and tracks things like retail prices. (If the government didn’t subsidize this industry, prices absolutely would skyrocket, but nothing has changed about that program.) The Stotlers live in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area.
The average cost of milk in Dallas in October 2020 was $3.03. In October 2021, that number rose to $3.29. That’s an increase of $0.26 per gallon, which amounts to roughly an 8% increase in prices. That’s certainly something, but it’s not the 40% surge that Stotler claimed. You can affect the outcome of the total increase by cherry-picking specific points on the timeline (if you wanted to make it seem like there hasn’t been much of an increase at all, you could point to the difference in cost from September 2020 to September 2021, where milk actually decreased in price from $3.30 to $3.22, for instance, but comparing October to October certainly seems like an honest assessment that reflects the realities here), but at no point will you find the surge portrayed in that segment.
Even taking the claim at face value, that milk prices have gone up by $0.80 per gallon (which they almost certainly have not), that amounts to an extra $9.60 per week or $499.20 per year (though, again, this number is extremely high compared to what it likely is). Not mentioned in the story: the fact that the coronavirus relief package passed by Democrats earlier this year increased the child tax credit, providing up to $300 per month per child between the ages of 0-6 and $250 per month per child between the ages of 6-17. This more than offsets whatever increases these families may see at the grocery store.
At another point during the interview, Krista Stotler said that if in June “a dollar was worth a dollar,” that it would now have only $0.70 of purchasing power in November. This would be worrisome if it were true, but it is not. No, the U.S. dollar has not lost 30% of its purchasing power over the course of five months. The actual change in purchasing power from June to September (most recent data) is $0.01. Perhaps she misspoke and meant June 2020, but even that is a change in just $0.06, not $0.30.
These are things that CNN could have easily fact-checked, but chose not to. The news network could have found out when the last time the specific store’s milk was priced at $1.99, something that would have been readily available, and compare it to what the Stotlers were actually paying today (which is likely even higher than the $2.79 she quoted, as that’s honestly an exceptionally low price for milk these days) — but they didn’t. CNN could have compared her claim about the power of the dollar to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data and simply edited out the portion of the story where she wildly overstated changes due to inflation — but they didn’t.
But perhaps what’s most frustrating about the way CNN handled (deserved) criticism of the story is that the network’s on-air talent doubled down on the claims and lashed out at people on Twitter.
Evan McMorris-Santoro, the CNN correspondent who reported the piece, had a bit of a meltdown. In addition to pretending that any significant amount of the online criticism was directed at the family and not at CNN (I witnessed people making jokes about how much milk 12 gallons is, and I saw some people highlighting that Krista Stotler’s claims didn’t add up — though this is something CNN should have protected her from by not including false claims in the final video package), he mocked his critics by calling them “assholes” and sarcastically said “Very wise and cool tweets. Glad you’re all weathering the economy so well!”
It should be noted that McMorris-Santoro was well aware of how unrepresentative this family was of the “average” family, teasing his segment with a tweet saying, “You’ve probably never been on a supermarket trip like this one.”
Brianna Keilar @brikeilarcnn"A gallon of milk was $1.99. Now it's $2.79. When you buy 12 gallons a week times four weeks, that's a lot of money." @EvanMcS goes grocery shopping with the Stotlers and shows us how badly inflation is hitting the middle class. https://t.co/39hPPRHLja
(On a side note: CNN infamously fired host Reza Aslan in 2017 for referring to then-President Donald Trump as a “piece of shit.” Aslan’s role at CNN was hosting a show called Believer with Reza Aslan, which wasn’t involved in the day-to-day reporting of the news — unlike McMorris-Santoro, who is supposed to be a respectable journalist, calling people with corrections “assholes.”)
New Day host Brianna Keilar responded to a tweet from historian Kevin Kruse highlighting that the $1.99 claim doesn’t make sense by writing, “I take it you don’t buy your milk at WalMart … or with coupons … or on deal days?”
Kevin M. Kruse @KevinMKruse@brikeilarcnn @EvanMcS Wait -- when was a gallon of milk last going for $1.99? https://t.co/YhsEgS1rIU
And I don’t even know where to start with that. If you’re now talking about going to different grocery stores (they showed the store in the segment, it wasn’t Walmart) or using coupons or “deal days” or what have you… then you’re not doing a story about how inflation is hurting people, now are you?
Facts don’t care about your feelings.
I do not doubt for a minute that this family’s food costs have gone up to a certain extent, but the claims about the power of a dollar and changes in the price of milk don’t add up. Maybe it seems like the cost of milk has gone up 40% in a few short months, but that doesn’t make it true. Maybe it feels like your dollar is only worth 70% of what it used to be, but that doesn’t make it true. And even if this family lived in some sort of pocket-dimension where both of those statements were 100% accurate, it would have been such an outlier that it wouldn’t have warranted sending a journalist from New York down to Texas specifically to meet with this specific family — unless the goal was specifically to find an outlier example to use to push a flimsy narrative.
None of this is on the family, and efforts to paint criticism of CNN’s story as a criticism of the family are honestly sick (see: Fox News running a story saying, “Liberals mock family of 11 featured on CNN concerned about the rising cost of milk,” which wasn’t at all what was being mocked). All of this is on the media outlets that care more about narrative than anything else. I’m sure there are plenty of people who mistakenly believe that milk prices have jumped by 40%, and that’s fine. It’s the job of journalists to correct misinformation, not amplify it, and then have a meltdown when they’re corrected.
Editor’s note: The Present Age has reached out to CNN for comment and will update the web version of this newsletter if and when they respond.