Last week, corporate media journalists melted down over a video of a man allegedly stealing ten packages of meat from a Trader Joe’s grocery store in New York.It was no surprise that Fox News sought to exploit the video from the New York Post, but the millionaires on MSNBC’s Morning Joe panel show did, too. Meanwhile, Inside Edition, a CBS show syndicated by local networks, blasted the video out all over the country. The outlets framed the incident as further evidence of a surge in lawlessness in big cities involving petty thefts from retailers, chain pharmacies, and grocery stores.
While there’s not much evidence to justify the crime-spree narrative, even if it were true, portraying it only as a law-and-order parable reflects a deep class bias excluding the other part of the story: a sharp increase in the number of people in New York City facing food insecurity and starvation.
Indeed, while the Post callously named the alleged thief the “Hamburglar,” he told the paper he took the meat because he is homeless and “fucking hungry” — like hundreds of thousands of others in America’s wealthiest metropolis, according to recent government data that these same media outlets refuse to even mention.
This story of mass immiseration is at the heart of these viral videos and reports about people stealing meat and sodas: if folks are resorting to desperate measures, it’s not because of lax law enforcement or political considerations. It’s because as the gap between the haves and have-nots grows ever wider, significantly more people are struggling to survive.
This is the tale that is being largely omitted by the millionaires paid by billionaires on television — because those elites will likely never have to worry about not having enough money to pay for anything at all. These people would argue Les Misérables is a cautionary tale about the dangers of only giving Jean Valjean a 19-year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family.
When it comes to the poor, their attitude is: Let them eat cable TV punditry.
‘Things aren’t quite right’
If you’ve watched or read the news these days, you know that the media is very worried about theft: items being stolen from grocery stores and pharmacies, and supposed organised thefts from luxury retailers.
Data shows that these crimes are in fact on the rise, but according to the Atlantic, they are still taking place at lower levels than before the start of the COVID pandemic. In reality, we’re seeing a surge in thefts over 2020 numbers because more stores are open, and fewer people are shut in at home — but that doesn’t mean an unusually high number of thefts are actually taking place.
But some journalists would rather go with their gut than rely on cold hard facts — and these people can just tell that (cue the ominous music) something is very wrong.
“I think this points to a larger issue,” Politico White House bureau chief Jonathan Lemire said about the stolen meat incident on Morning Joe. “There is a sense that things aren’t quite right. The city is a little bit out of control.”
Lemire may have a point. Something isn’t right in the Big Apple: more people are going hungry.
Recent US census surveys show that food scarcity has increased 73% in the New York metro area since last spring, with more than 15% of people in the region saying they sometimes or often do not have food to eat. This number is up 65% from the start of the pandemic. Another 21% of people in the region are food insecure, which is defined in the census questions as respondents not always having the kind of foods they want.
Similarly, roughly 36% of people in the New York metro region say it’s been somewhat or very difficult paying for usual household expenses lately — a 20% increase since last spring, according to census data.
While the situation in New York is especially fraught, people across the country are facing increased hardship. According to census surveys, roughly 10% of people in the United States are facing food scarcity — a 17% increase since last spring.
‘They’re locking up my toothpaste’
Corporate media, however, chose to report on the stolen meat video without providing any of that context.
Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough — on a network that reportedly pays hosts up to $8 million a year — instead used the opportunity to argue that Democrats should crack down on petty thefts, in the name of protecting “the disadvantaged.”
“If we don’t protect our streets, if we don’t make sure that people can go into stores without having crime swirling all around them, let’s face it — it’s not going to be people like you and me that bear the brunt of the crime wave,” Scarborough said. “It’s going to be the truly disadvantaged, the people in neighbourhoods where cops don’t go as often.”
Who exactly does Scarborough think is stealing food from grocery stores in broad daylight? Again, the man in the video said he’s homeless — a detail the Morning Joe segment didn’t even bother to mention.
Scarborough blamed the thefts on Democratic politicians caving to criminal justice reform advocates and “wokeness.”
Watching the segment, you might get the impression the people really being disadvantaged here are the millionaires who get paid to sit around complaining about crimes of poverty on TV — since it is now slightly harder for them to clean their teeth.
“I go into my drugstore, Duane Reed or CVS or whatever, and almost everything is locked now,” said coanchor Willie Geist. “It used to be some high-value items were locked. But the toothpaste is locked. Everything is locked.”
Panelist Reverend Al Sharpton agreed. “There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “You go to a local pharmacy, Duane Reade or Rite Aid, any of them, and you have to get someone to help assist you. They have the little button there. You hit the buzzer, and the guy comes over and unlocks your toothpaste. We’re talking about basic stuff here. What did I miss that we now have to lock up toothpaste?”
Sharpton, a longtime civil rights activist, noted that “there are those that are concerned, including me, about overloading the system and the jails with petty crime.” But he ultimately pleaded with the city’s new Democratic mayor, Eric Adams, to do something because “they’re locking up my toothpaste.”
The supposed bodega Score
Inside Edition distributed a report on the stolen meat video all over the country — connecting it to complaints from grocery store owners that people are stealing food from their stores and selling it to bodegas, which then resell it.
“Thieves are grabbing high-priced items like steaks and fish from big supermarkets like this one and selling them off to smaller grocery stores that don’t ask too many questions about where they came from,” said the report.
A co-owner of the Morton Williams Supermarkets chain told Inside Edition that thieves “will fill up a garbage bag with all the bone-in ribeye we have and take it to the bodega down the road and sell it for $5 each.”
Morton Williams’ fish and meat director told the Post they recently caught a man stealing $150 worth of porterhouse steaks and $200 worth of candles, claiming the man “said that supermarkets and bodega owners in the Bronx and elsewhere pay $5 per for each steak and candle.”
We haven’t seen any other evidence for this claim, but it’s worth considering the supposed risk-reward involved: people are committing very public crimes and risking going to jail for, what, $50?
This big-if-true story really hammers home the issues being documented in all of these viral videos and reports about theft from stores: people are hungry and desperate, and trying to do whatever they can to survive.
But you would never know it from watching the news.
Andrew Perez is a writer and researcher living in Maine.
Featured image: Morning Joe co-hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough. Photo: MSNBC/YouTube
This article was first published on Jacobin. Read it here.