SOLOMON: Only Some Babies Dazzle News Media

When Bobbi McCaughey gave birth to septuplets, she became an instant heroine. Fame and fortune arrived with her babies. The news media went nuts. And the gifts poured in.It's been one heck of a baby shower. In the words of Associated Press, the seven McCaughey infants "have received, among other things, a free van, groceries for a year, a lifetime supply of diapers, college scholarships and free cable for seven years -- one year for each baby."Newsweek's special contribution came in the form of free dental work on its cover, where the smiling mom's teeth were straightened and whitened by computer. A spokeswoman for the magazine later conceded that "perhaps" the photo technicians "reconstructed too much."A few days after the McCaughey family boosted Iowa's population by seven, the news broke that a mother who gave birth to six babies last spring had not fared nearly as well. Jacqueline Thompson, the first black woman with sextuplets born in the United States, was living in obscurity as she struggled to raise her children in Washington, D.C.The disparity between the McCaugheys' fame and the Thompsons' oblivion surfaced just before Thanksgiving. Suddenly, the hard-working mother and her blue-collar husband were buoyed by a flash flood of charity. General Motors gave the Thompson clan a minivan -- for presentation on a nationally syndicated TV show. A Ford dealer came up with a slightly used blue Aerostar.In recent days, plenty of baby clothes, diaper-rash ointment, teething gel and strollers have arrived, along with a lot of small checks. A foundation set up by a mortgage investor announced that it was moved to give the Thompsons a house.While such generosity is all well and good, it's very likely the media interest and the public response would have come much sooner for the Thompson newborns if they'd been white. That kind of tacit racism is only one of the problems with the media's mania for multiple births.In this country, thousands of babies are born into dire poverty each week -- and the news media commonly depict their mothers as problematic rather than heroic. Evidently, if a low- income mom gives birth to half a dozen babies at once, she merits journalistic concern and strong community support. But if she gives birth to several babies one at a time, she's apt to be seen as an intractable social problem.Politicians and media pundits often speak as though the typical beleaguered mother with scant income doesn't deserve much of anything. She certainly doesn't get her teeth whitened or straightened on any magazine covers.While Newsweek was putting the finishing retouches on Bobbi McCaughey's teeth, the London-based Financial Times reported a grim story on its front page, under the headline "Reform May Push U.S. Poor Into Squalor."The article was blunt: "Large numbers of Americans risk destitution when the law requiring people on welfare to take jobs comes fully into effect 18 months from now." Citing the results of a national survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the newspaper sketched a bleak picture."A key problem was that welfare recipients were heavily concentrated in inner cities when vast numbers of retail and low- skill jobs had migrated to suburban shopping malls and industrial parks," the Financial Times said. "Public transport did not reach them and most welfare recipients lacked cars."Of course, few of the low-income parents in such situations will be receiving free minivans.As for medical care, there's more bad news: The mayors estimate that only 27 percent of "low skill" jobs offer health insurance. For many families, when welfare disappears, so will health coverage. Meanwhile, child care subsidies are so meager that mothers with young children often have few realistic options for working outside the home.The news media can be very effective at showing us what's poignant and laudable about one family with limited resources. But the focus gets hazy when considering millions of those families; the coverage tends to become quite abstract.Eager to report on upbeat examples of generosity, numerous stories about septuplets and sextuplets tell us that our society is committed to taking care of children. Maybe we're trying to convince ourselves, despite all the evidence to the contrary.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His most recent books are "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."

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