Why is the Farm Bill escaping media scrutiny?

Regional and local media in core Midwest agriculture states have been remiss when it comes to coverage of the $260 billion five-year 2012 farm bill and the rush in November to try to push the bill through the Congressional super committee without debate.

The failure of the so-called Congressional super committee to reach agreement on national debt and budget issues has been disappointing to many. However, this inaction may end up being a blessing for those wanting to thoroughly vet the upcoming 2012 farm bill.

There had been very little discussion of the 2012 farm bill at any level of media until mid-October of this year. This is when the small, joint committee with directions from the House and Senate Agriculture committees began pressing forward with their plan, trying to get it to the super committee for approval in late November.

A simple Internet search of news items during late October and early November using the key words “farm bill” would garner dozens of online stories. This may initially appear to be ample coverage of the issue, but deeper reviews of the stories reveal the root problem. The vast majority of the articles were re-runs of a wire service story that was produced in mid-October and very few were either original, from mid to small sized media outlets, or included local details and interviews.

With its Washington, D.C. dateline, the wire service article circulated across the country. Many media outlets picked up the story and ran it. Some used it as a frame for a minimally tweaked version of the story for their region. Almost all of the major metropolitan newspapers carried some version of the wire service article.

So whether you were reading news from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Dallas, you could read the same quotes from Mr. Bruce Babcock, an agriculture economist from Iowa State University, whose quotes were in the original wire service story. The articles also included the same information about the proposed $23 billion cut in Farm Bill spending over the next 10 years.

The online search for 2012 farm bill news from across the U.S. did generate a hit for an original article ran in the Gadsen Times in Alabama. This article stood out because the writer, Dana Beyerle, did the apparently unthinkable — interviewed an actual farmer. Beyerle had several quotes from a farmer whose operation is located in Aliceville, Ala. This provided a very nice local application of the proposed 2012 farm bill legislation. This article was only found after a very thorough search; it was hardly the norm.

In the vast majority of the articles you could see the same discussion on what the original wire article deemed to be the primary point of contention in the 2012 farm bill — the debate between direct payment subsidies verses increased crop insurance subsidies for shallow-loss protection. A Farm Bureau spokesperson was the primary source on the value of increased crop insurance subsidies. Some media outlets would change up the quotes from the national source, with quotes from a Farm Bureau official in their own state.

Granted, the debate on which subsidy distribution method is the most effective in aiding farmers is important. Direct payments account for $5 billion a year in the current $288 billion farm bill that was passed in 2008 and expires in September 2012. It is estimated the direct subsidies could cost as much as $10.2 billion a year as part of the proposed 2012 farm bill.

An allotment of $51 billion of a bill with a price tag just over $260 billion is worth considerable national discussion. Where is the discussion about the distribution of the remaining $210 billion? It seems media fell for a shell game and had attention diverted to one issue and failed to cover the broader implications of the proposed farm bill. Issues such as subsidies to the ethanol and sugar industries, clean water and sustainability programs, and state-based projects funded by the farm bill have received little attention. State-based projects alone account for over $15 billion in the farm bill.

The few original articles found in the search were mostly from websites for alternative agriculture associations such as the Texas based DailyYonder.com or Hobby Farms hosted in California. A handful of Midwest radio and television stations had news briefs posted online. These articles primarily covered events hosted in the area by high-level elected officials. Several included quotes from the state’s U.S. Senator, Dept. of Agriculture spokesperson, or as mentioned before, a state level Farm Bureau representative.

The lack of local coverage in Kansas and Oklahoma was particularly interesting due to agriculture’s prominence in the economy of those states. Furthermore, these states are home to two of the key Congressional agriculture committee members: Pat Roberts (R) Kansas, and Frank Lucas (R) Oklahoma. Roberts, the ranking member of the Senate agriculture committee, and Lucas, the chair of the House agriculture committee, along with Debbie Stabenow (D) Michigan, chair of the Senate agriculture committee, have been three of the most cited sources on the 2012 farm bill.

It would seem sensible, not to mention easier, for a journalist in Kansas or Oklahoma to call Senator Roberts or Representative Lucas’ local offices and get details specific to those states. Or perhaps a better story would be to ask about the unusual timing of the formation of a joint PAC between the two lawmakers, whose only apparent connection is through the farm bill and agriculture committee work.

An analysis of the purpose for the formation of the Lucas-Roberts Victory Committee in October of this year, just prior to the ramp up of farm bill lobbying and discussion could be illuminating. Or even the fact that according to the filing forms obtained from the FEC website, the fundraising committee is not being administered by Lucas-Roberts supporters in either Oklahoma or Kansas, but rather a professional PAC management firm in Florida.

The current farm bill accounts for over $57 billion a year in our national budget. The proposed 2012 version would cost over $52 billion a year. The substantial price tag on this legislation, along with current discussions about so many systemic agriculture and food production issues in the U.S. should warrant considerable discussion on a national level. The economic and environmental impact of the agriculture industry on state and local policies should have farm bill coverage included in lead stories across the Midwest. Unfortunately, that simply is not the case.

As journalists in the Midwest, we need to acknowledge our obligation, and our ability to cover the 2012 farm bill and other agriculture news from a local perspective. A person would be hard pressed to find a Midwest newsroom that does not contain a journalist with considerable agriculture knowledge from either direct involvement in agriculture or from living in a region in which agriculture is a primary industry.

Moreover, the abundance of local sources that can discuss the local impact of agriculture legislation is unsurpassed in Midwest states. While Mr. Babcock, the agriculture economist from Iowa State, is undoubtedly quite knowledgeable about farm bill affects, do we not have dozens of universities with robust agriculture programs in the Midwest from which we could gather alternative views and additional information?

Could we use the Gadsen Times article as an example and interview producers from our communities? Understanding that many of the 2012 farm bill details have not yet been made public, a series of articles outlining how programs and subsidies from the 2008 farm bill have affected local farmers would be quite valuable.

The agriculture industry in the U.S. affects us all: urban, rural, farmer, consumer. National, regional, and local viewpoints are needed in agriculture debates. We, as journalists from the Midwest, need to stop letting those from large, metropolitan media outlets set the tone and agenda of agriculture coverage.


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