photo by Lance Cheung, courtesy the U.S. Department of Agriculture
The rush to outrage is a very old human impulse. But in our modern media landscape, that outrage can gain national momentum, even if its basis comes from a very local story.
Canaan, New Hampshire, is a short drive away from my vacation home in Vermont. Fewer than 4,000 people live there. It is the sort of small, rural town where the athletic, popular crowd often rules the local high school. In such places, even adults can come under the sway of the local adolescent royalty. But since not everyone shares the experience of living in such an area, the necessary context can go missing in stories that take place there.
Consider the story of Bonnie Kimball. Kimball had worked for five years in the Mascoma Valley Regional High School cafeteria when she was fired in late March. The Valley News, a daily newspaper based out of Lebanon, New Hampshire, reported that contracted vendor Cafe Services fired Kimball for giving a student a lunch when his account was empty. Kimball said she told him to pay for the meal the next day, which he did. She also told the press that her direct supervisor had instructed her to let students take food if they couldn’t pay and discreetly tell them to refill their accounts when they were able.
The national press caught wind of the story. On its surface, it had the irresistible appeal of “the man” oppressing the masses. Compassionate cafeteria worker fired for feeding a hungry student – who wouldn’t react with outrage?
The Washington Post ran the story under the headline: “She served an $8 school lunch to a teen who couldn’t pay. Then she was fired — for ‘theft’.” CNN reported that it had examined Kimball’s termination letter and noted that the vendor accused Kimball of violating federal and school policies. Other outlets picked up the story too, and a national outcry followed. Two of Kimball’s co-workers resigned in protest. José Andrés, a celebrity chef, tweeted about the story and suggested that Kimball come work for his company if she needed another job.
In the wake of outraged responses across the country, Cafe Services offered to rehire Kimball, two months after firing her. Kimball demurred. She told a local ABC affiliate that she believed Cafe Services was only offering her job back for positive publicity, and that she was not interested in helping to rehabilitate the company’s image.
Then the mother of the student in question came forward. The student was not hungry, as much of the media coverage stated. The 17-year-old was supposed to pack his own lunch. The mother told the New Hampshire Union Leader, “I have three children, and they are all well-cared for and well-fed.”
Around the same time, Fresh Picks Cafe – the division of Cafe Services that managed Kimball – reversed the organization’s original refusal to discuss the matter publicly. In a statement, the president of Fresh Picks Cafe stated that Kimball had been allowing the student to help himself without paying over the course of three months. He specified that Kimball had lied to a manager, claiming she charged the student for items when she did not. The statement noted, too, that the vendor has a policy in place for students who cannot afford a lunch, but that Kimball did not follow this procedure.
The student’s mother also shared Facebook messages with the Union Leader, which she says show that Kimball had been attempting to cover up the incident with his cooperation. In the messages, Kimball encouraged the student to add money to his account to avoid scrutiny from a particular manager. Kimball denied that she was trying to involve the student in any sort of cover-up. However, she told the Union Leader that the student was a popular “jock,” which was why she allowed him to charge food to other accounts, such as his girlfriend’s. In light of the new information, the school district rescinded its demand that Cafe Services rehire Kimball.
Mascoma Valley Superintendent Amanda Isabelle summarized the situation for the Union Leader. “We have been overwhelmed by a crush of national and international media interest in this incident, but I do not believe we have yet seen a full and complete retelling of the facts,” Isabelle said. The school district will hire an independent investigator to create a thorough report on this incident – presumably a report heavy on facts and light on clickbait.
This story is another object lesson in the downside of living in a frenzied, media-driven, rush-to-judgment world. The most salient aspect of a news story in this world is how many clicks, likes and shares it might generate, not how accurate, nuanced or informative it is. There are at least two sides to every story, but that’s not how most news – and especially most viral news – is handled these days.
What Ronald Reagan said about the Soviets applies to the news media we consume: Trust, but verify. On second thought, don’t be so quick to trust at all. If you take your time, you are apt to find out there is more to the story than the first rush to cover it suggested.