Attention Lurking in the News, #4, Part Two: On Food Addiction and a Lost Friend


Content that has depth and complexity is like a person.  We have to study it, and delay passing judgment until we’ve done our best to understand the subject.  Sometimes, like a cheating lover, the devil is found in the details.

Take the recent investigative ‘content’ concerning our nation-wide obesity problem. The Times and NPR reporters have produced in-depth reports on how the fast-food industry has devoted decades of scientific research to getting us addicted to processed foods with just the perfect “bliss point” of fat, salt, and sugar.  Like the cigarette companies before them, they buried smoking-gun memos that exposed their intention to create widespread addictions.  One snack food, they crowed triumphantly, successfully canceled out consumers’ ability to feel they’d eaten anything of caloric value!  We could eat this sugar-salt-fat delivery system forever, our bodies tricked into not signaling when to stop.

On a personal level, we know the kind of effort it takes to understand opposing views, say, among two friends or close relatives.  How much listening, weighing of another person’s life history, struggles, family influences, successes and failures, loves, losses and (most stubbornly concealed) sources of shame.  Try as we might, we can miss the real reasons behind seemingly irreconcilable differences.  But because we care about these individuals, we keep trying–observing, storing information, pondering.  One could call this reflective attention.  Some mysteries do seem to open up in time.

Because of the recent revelations about how food industry giants have done their utmost to get us to eat more often and in larger more fattening proportions, I recently gained insight on a long-ago disconnect with a former friend. The last time I’d socialized with her was years ago in the late afternoon, at her place, when her daughter came home from middle school saying she was hungry.  My friend offered the already overweight girl a large box of cookies, and returned to our conversation.  Her daughter stayed with us, and I must have shown concern–never mentioning it, of course–that the child was eating her way through the entire box–at least 20 cookies–and her mother was not even reminding her that they’d be having supper soon.

After that my friend became distant.  She and her husband were both seriously obese, and might not have been able to teach their daughter to restrain from overeating when they couldn’t control their own food addiction.  From studying alcoholism, which runs in my family, I learned that addiction changes our brain chemistry.  When addicted, our brains still know the right thing to do, but the chemical switch that enables us to take action, or to stop ourselves, gets turned off. And because our mind knows it’s right and can’t make us do it (without a lot of help and moral support, such as 12-step programs), guilt and shame result.

It wasn’t that my friend stopped liking me, it was that she didn’t want to feel guilty when I noticed her not dealing with her family’s obesity problem.

The obesity epidemic, thanks to the scrutiny (a first-rate version of attention) of content providers, now has a fighting chance of moving toward a cure.  So – three cheers for real content and the journalists that provide it, and three more for the attention we hope it gets!

Attention Lurking in the News, #4: On Content Providers, a.k.a. Journalists


Maureen Dowd’s column, “As Time Goes Bye” in the New York Times, Sunday, 3/10/13, starts with a delightful reminiscence about her salad days as one of a handful of female cub reporters at Time.  She captures our attention evoking those “Mad Men” style years, when Time’s founder, Henry Luce, wanted the magazine filled with catchy items for, ahem, “busy men.”

The “Bye” Dowd refers to is Time Warner’s decision to cut the once-powerful magazine loose to fend for itself, while hanging onto more profitable ventures in television and film.  Time and other print media are “bleeding ad revenue,” Dowd notes.  As print journalism loses market share to digital media, it is “spooked by rumors of its own obsolescence.”

Dowd’s main concern is revealed at the end: the value of “content providers,” formally called journalists.  She’s got quite a point, but this attending metaphysician feels compelled to take it further.

Not just the world of journalists is spooked.  Readers of the NY Times are appalled that the nation’s premier paper of record has cut its ranks of reporters, reducing its news items noticeably, especially from foreign locations.

Equally spooky is CNN Cable News’ recent elimination of its foreign news offices, not even hiring freelancers to cover international news.  These efforts aren’t seen as “profitable” to the parent company, Time Warner.  Unfortunately for those who like their news straight, the most-watched TV news channel in this country, Fox, makes no pretense of in-depth news reporting.  That might offend the huge corporate interests that Fox’s owner, News Corp., represents.  Why should CNN continue to set a higher, more responsible standard?  Because it can?  Because it wants to provide news that is actually–rather than cynically, as in Fox’s motto–fair and balanced?

It’s worth asking, Who can be “fair and balanced” without spending time, energy, and attention to people’s experiences and viewpoints, here and abroad?

As one consumer of content, I find that the finest news now comes from non-profit sources: National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System.  Rather than have ads constantly interrupting their attention, their listeners and viewers would rather pay for reliable news reports.  WNYC, New York’s public radio station, is receiving enough donations to expand its news staff!

Now is the time, Dowd recommends, that readers of content – digital or print – and those who provide it, do some serious reckoning.  Instead of losing faith in the value of quality reporting, people should realize that digital platforms are “shiny sacks with bells and whistles” that, without content, are empty. It’s not about how you’re reading, she concludes, it’s what you’re reading.  And of course she’s right–if the how is limited to the means of delivery, such as print, TV or digital ‘platforms’.

But something deeper than information or content may be at stake.  The what of reading has two other ‘platforms’ besides digital or print media.  One is planted on how well information is gathered and presented.  The other, more deeply structured, rests on how carefully and thoughtfully the content is read.  Both boil down to quality of attention—the how of content that is not concerned with cool-looking encasements, doctored photos on glossy paper, and smart-talking commentators.

Followup: After I’d written this, Michael Mudd, a former executive vice president of Kraft Foods, spoke out in the Sunday, 3/17/13 NY Times: “How To Force Ethics on the Food Industry.”  Based on first-hand experience, he informs us that, despite claiming only to provide what the public asks for, the food industry has for years made “relentless efforts” to “increase the number of ‘eating occasions’ people indulged in and the amount of food they consumed at each.”  In their pursuit of shelf life and profits, food companies ignored warnings of the dangers of obesity and potentially toxic preservatives.  Mudd urges action:  Tax sugary drinks, snack foods, candy and sweet baked goods; use the revenue to subsidize healthy foods for the poor and educate people about healthy eating and exercise.  Make mandatory federal guidelines for marketing food to children.  Display the calorie count of all menu items in chain restaurants and vending machines.

Excellent suggestions, from an expert.  But will legislators be able to overcome food industry lobbyists armed with big bucks for campaign donations?  We wish them—the legislators—courage and perseverance.  Meanwhile, we can thank the content providers, and apply the information to our own lives.  Psychologists call the latter action executive attention.  It has an authoritative ring, don’t you think?  I like the fact that the executive here is simply the one paying attention and acting upon it responsibly.  It puts things on a more manageable scale.

See my next post for a personal followup.