Starbucks Coverage with a Shot of Schadenfreude

     In case you haven’t heard the buzz, Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX) is struggling. The global coffee company recently announced that it will be closing 600 “underperforming” U.S. stores and cutting about 12,000 jobs.

     While most reports about the closings were balanced, Reuters slanted a July 6 article against the “coffee giant,” with a number of people gleeful about the company’s troubles. In general, media reports on coffee run hot and cold – attacking it in connection to bad hair days, poor aging, migraines and increased risk of miscarriages, but praising it when studies showed it might improve heart health or have some other medical benefit.

     Only a few days after Starbucks’ July 1 announcement of expanded store closures, Reuters ran a story headlined: “Some coffee fans get grim delight in Starbucks woes.” That July 6 story quoted eight critics of the chain, including a few who were cheerful about Starbuck’s store closures.

     “‘I’m so happy. I’m so not a Starbucks person,’ said Melinda Vegliotti, sipping iced coffee at the Irving Farm Coffee House in New York. ‘I believe in supporting small businesses. Starbucks, bye-bye,’” she told Reuters. Another person in the article complained the company “went too big, too fast.”

     In addition to the one-sided Reuters story about people “happy” to see the company falter, Starbucks has been attacked in news reports on obesity for its products’ calories. And its main product – coffee (with caffeine) – has been hyped as an addictive threat to children and teens.

     The Reuters story by Ellen Wulfhorst was not equally balanced with Starbucks fans, but only quoted one “defender” of the brand who called it “convenient.” With the resources of the wire service Wulfhorst should have been able to find supporters of Starbucks and people concerned about losing their jobs to provide a less glib perspective on the store closings.

     For a business that has 7,100 U.S. stores, there are bound to be fans out there. And it was local journalists who found them.

     Several local news outlets including Pittsburgh, Pa., Salinas, Calif., and Steamboat Springs, Colo., interviewed Starbucks patrons who said they would be devastated if their store closed. In the Steamboat Springs newspaper, two women jokingly threatened to “chain” themselves to the building if their Starbucks turns out to be one of the 600 set to close.

     According to a July 6 article in the Steamboat Pilot & Today, residents Liz Rostermundt and Claire Tegl “visit the store almost every week.”

     “They can’t close the store, Rostermundt said in mock horror. ‘We’ll riot. We’ll chain ourselves; we’ll lock ourselves inside’,” said the Pilot article by Blythe Terrell.

     Pittsburgh Live quoted Allison Shneck, who described Starbucks venti espresso with two pumps of sugar-free vanilla syrup as her morning “salvation,” and Bobby Burnett told The Salinas Californian “I didn’t like hearing it [the news] at all.”

Does That Coffee Make My Butt Look Big?

     You might be surprised to see coffee under scrutiny in media reports on obesity – after all, a cup of black coffee has only about five calories. But ABC’s “Nightline” included shots against Starbucks in its May 23 tour of the “caloric minefield New Yorkers now face every day.”

     That tour with correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi and food writer Josh Ozersky promoted New York City’s mandate that forced restaurants with 15 outlets or more to post calories for all products. Though Alfonsi interviewed one opponent of the mandate, the bulk of the segment was spent with Ozersky describing a number of calorie-laden foods.

    “This piece of yellow caulking-like cake is 420 calories,” said Ozersky as he described what appeared to be Starbucks’ iced lemon pound cake. “And this [Starbucks] grande mocha with whip, with its polyurethane-looking cream on top, is exactly the same 420 calories. So if you eat these together, it’s like what? 840 calories. You could be having pork chops or something good. You would do better to just eat Kit Kats, I think, for breakfast.” The logo on the cup, the brown paper wrapping on the pastry and Alfonsi’s introduction made it obvious where the breakfast came from.

     Alfonsi didn’t mention any of the myriad choices of beverages or foods at Starbucks that range in calories and didn’t include patrons who might want to eat or drink the food regardless.

     Alfonsi did ask Ozersky, “Are restaurants going to lose business because of this [calorie labeling on menus]?” The New York Magazine food writer replied, “No. I don’t know,” before saying that chain restaurants “can accommodate the needs of progressive laws.”

     “The only question is whether it makes our lives better,” said Ozersky, who concluded that calorie posting is “probably better for society.” There was no rebuttal of that perspective from Alfonsi or another source.

     Alfonsi didn’t ask Chuck Hunt of the New York City chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association that question in her “Nightline” report. Hunt did tell “Nightline” viewers, “We’re not against having it [calorie information] on the menus. We are against the way in which we are asked to provide it.”

     The National Restaurant Association (NRA) has opposed mandatory restaurant labeling because, in many cases, calorie information can already be accessed online or in the restaurant and there are so many options for custom orders of food that listing all possible calorie combinations would take up a huge amount of space.

     “Coffee chains serve drinks with different whipped creams, different kinds of milk and other syrups and additives. Take a look at any major coffee chain's website for all of the different possible variations of a cappuccino drink, with a broad range of caloric values,” the NRA said in a statement. Listing every variation could make menu boards “a mile long,” it said.

     In addition to the burden of thinking (and printing) up every possible order, mandatory labeling could open the door to frivolous lawsuits, said columnist Radley Balko on Fox

     “An extra pat of butter, an extra dash of salt, a substitution here or there, or even a generous chef who – God forbid – decides to give a customer a generous portion, can now mean multimillion-dollar class action lawsuits,” Balko wrote.

     It is each person’s responsibility to decide what he wants to eat, and since many eateries provide calorie information online or with a kiosk individuals can decide for themselves.

     Despite criticism of mandatory menu-labeling, many journalists have peddled the idea pushed by food police groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) which is often referred to as a “consumer group.” CNN’s Soledad O’Brien commented on Feb. 26, 2007, that restaurants like UNO Chicago Grill and Ruby Tuesday “should put the numbers on the menu, too” after the network aired CSPI’s attack on casual dining eateries. ABC’s Nancy Cordes also agreed about mandatory labeling, saying that “a menu can be a minefield.”

     But calories weren’t the only danger the media found in Starbucks. An ABC report in June 2006 by Elisabeth Leamy promoted menu labeling and portrayed Starbucks as a drug dealer.

Caffeine: A Target in the Media’s War on Drugs

     The media have been fighting a war on drugs, and it isn’t just the pharmaceutical industry that has been abused by reports. Journalists have also condemned caffeine, whether in coffee, energy drinks or soda, in stories that portrayed Starbucks as a drug pusher and called for increased regulation of other products containing caffeine.

     Elisabeth Leamy’s pro-menu labeling “consumer alert” on the June 19, 2006, “Good Morning America,” was filled with drug terminology that disparaged the coffee chain.

     “Starbucks has turned coffee into an art form and a goldmine. And many customers say they love their regular dose,” said Leamy. A Starbucks customer said, “It is habitual.” (Emphasis added) Leamy’s report relied on the left-wing, pro-regulation CSPI, which fill-in anchor Kate Snow labeled a “consumer group.”

     In 2006, CBS worried about teenagers drinking too much coffee and condemned even decaffeinated coffee in separate reports.

     “Coffee has always been considered an adult drink, but today coffee drinkers are much, much younger,” noted CBS’s Julie Chen as she introduced the anti-coffee story on the June 21, 2006, “Early Show.” But “many teens are making coffee a daily ritual, and that’s raising concern among health experts,” the morning show co-anchor warned as she introduced a story by correspondent Susan McGinnis.

     The report featured nutritionist Elisa Zied, who recommended no more than 200 milligrams of caffeine per day. That’s “about the amount you’ll find in a medium cup of gourmet coffee,” McGinnis noted, as she held aloft a coffee cup in a Caribou Coffee (Nasdaq: CBOU) franchise before warning that “most of the teenagers we talked to don’t stop at one drink.”

     CBS’s McGinnis didn’t tell viewers that Zied has praised CSPI for successfully “nudging food companies to change their advertising/marketing of less than healthy [foods].”

     The “Early Show” even brewed hype against decaf coffee when they announced “shocking news” for viewers on Oct. 12, 2006.

     “A new study finds most decaffeinated coffee drinks contain some caffeine,” said co-host Rene Syler as she introduced a story by correspondent Randall Pinkston. But this wasn’t the scary, new information CBS portrayed it to be. Decaffeinating a drink does not guarantee that it removes all the caffeine, and health experts have known that for years.

     Pinkston warned that it could be a problem because “doctors say just 10 milligrams can give a sensitive person the jitters.”     

     Though some news reports have connected drinking coffee to bad hair days, poor aging, migraines and increased risk of miscarriages, the media have given it praise when studies showed it might improve heart health or have some other benefit.

     On June 17, 2008, CBS’s Harry Smith reported that your morning coffee “has its perks” and “might even help you live longer.” The statement was based on a study that found “women who drank four to five cups a day had a 26-percent reduction in risk of death from all causes.”

     ABC’s Chris Cuomo mentioned the same study on the June 17, 2008, “Good Morning America.” Cuomo’s remarks accurately reflected the often-confusing media treatment of coffee when he said, “Sometimes they tell you the caffeine is bad. Sometimes they tell you it saves your heart. Maybe it makes one thing better, another thing not so good, but take it for what it is.”