Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Big Soda Lobbying

Big Soda (the beverage industry) is becoming as legislatively active and socially polarizing as Big Tobacco, Big Automotive or Big Pharmaceuticals. Under fire for their use of high fructose corn syrup, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Dr Pepper Snapple are fighting legislators' sin-taxes proposals, regulation implementation, and consumer restriction.

The punishment on major beverage corporations followed Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, a nationwide effort to encourage healthy lifestyles through eating well and exercising. This included the removal of sugar drinks from public schools and the taxation of fructose syrup. "Let's Move," along with The New England Journal of Medicine article, "The Public Health and Economic Benefits of Taxing Sugar-Sweetened Beverages" mobilized Big Soda to lash out, responding with $18 million in lobbying funds to squelch any regulation or tax.

Having seen the media's negative response to the financial industries weak
Haitian aid, logic suggests that a media maelstrom is coming against Big Soda. America has little tolerance for an industry that is fattening the American youth and paying lobbyist to keep its unhealthy operations strong. Yet besides The Huffington Post, few publications acknowledged Big Soda's lobbying efforts.

On the national level, the only major publication to deeply pursue the topic is The Los Angeles Times in Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger's Feb. 7 article, "Beverage industry douses tax on soft drinks." While the article does present opposing views of debate, Hamburger and Geiger quickly come out against Big Soda. Shoddy Big Soda lobbying science, however, may be to blame (rather than biased reporting).

The article draws a sinister tone of Big Soda, with Geiger and Hamburger writing, "That was before the industry unlimbered its guns."

Local coverage of the issue has been far less condemning, as seen in the Feb. 14 The News Record article, "Food Fight: U.S. wages new war on junk food" by Emily Lang.

"PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have pledged their support of Obama’s new initiative and promised a new front-of-container nutritional labeling system for their soft drinks by 2012," Lang writes, showing the positive aspects of Big Soda.

Lang goes as far as to quote the chief executive officer of Coca-Cola, a person that The Los Angeles Times would have had access to, yet did interrogate. Lang presents a solid analysis of the situation, making a bias slip only once, writing "[Big Soda]'s bottom line depends on the rampant unchecked consumption of their irrefutably unhealthy product."

A last angle of coverage to explore is that of the blogosphere, specifically The Huffington Post's Nov. 4 article, "As Soda Tax Bubble Up, Food Lobby Mobilizes" by Christine Spolar. This article is a byproduct of The Huffington Post's Investigative Fund, a non-profit organization that promotes investigative journalism.

Spolar makes a unique editorial decision by approaching this article from the legislator's perspective, writing, "Washington lobbyists have been enjoying a multi-million-dollar sugar rush from the food industry."

While Spolar does approach The Los Angeles Times article in its disdain for Big Soda, it does make excellent editorial sourcing decisions, including an an interview with Nelson Eusebio, the executive director of the National Supermarket Association. This is unique in that a supermarket representative is equally divided between selling any products and selling healthy products (the same debate that Big Soda is having with U.S. Congress).

Spolar filters the complex issues into one polarizing question, by quoting Eusebio as saying, "If we eliminate soda, would people stay away from fried food, hot dogs and all other junk out there?" This is editorial brilliancy.

With many more articles likely to chastise and defend Big Soda, one issue needs to be acknowledged: Are soda taxes truly intended to promote health or fight a massive budget deficit? Whether or not newspapers acknowledge this will be a test of journalistic integrity in every editor.

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