Baby formula crisis: ABC, CBS, NBC treating Biden 'like a bystander,' media watchdog says

Millions of parents across the country affected by baby formula shortages

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The Big Three networks have provided extensive coverage of the baby formula crisis in their evening newscasts, but they've been reluctant to assign blame to President Biden, according to a new study.

The conservative Media Research Center found that out of 54 evening newscast stories on the formula shortages that sent parents into a panic on ABC's "World News Tonight," "CBS Evening News," and "NBC Nightly News" between May 9 and this week, just 10 of them included "mentions of culpability or blame for the Biden administration," a rate of 19 percent.

ABC (22 stories on the baby formula crisis), CBS (17) and NBC (15) all provided what NewsBusters Research Director Scott Whitlock considered adequate coverage of the alarming story, but he told Fox News Digital his analysis found that the networks were treating Biden like a "bystander."

Empty shelves show a shortage of baby formula at a CVS store in San Antonio, Texas. (Getty images  |   Reuters/Kaylee Greenlee Beal)

"They kind of treat him like a bystander. We looked at gas prices this spring and most of the stories we found, there was really no hint of any kind of blame for Joe Biden," he said. "It was almost all Russia. And obviously Russia was a factor, but gas prices have been going up for a while. So we wanted to see how they were covering this crisis." 

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As an example, Whitlock pointed to the media's sharply negative coverage of detained migrant children under the Trump administration, at one point illustrating their point with photos of youngsters in cages that were from the Obama years.

"And we know from Republican presidents, Donald Trump and going back before him, that any time there is this type of thing, Republican presidents get a ton of blame whether they deserve it or not," Whitlock added.

Some of the negative coverage of Biden in the segments included ABC's David Muir asking on June 1 if he "should have known about this sooner," and ABC's Mary Bruce adding the White House was "really struggling to explain" the formula shortage.

While the networks made scant mention of it, Biden was criticized elsewhere as appearing flat-footed on the issue, as the Food and Drug Administration came under fire for not alerting Americans to the pending shortage and coming up with a plan.

Rows of baby formula at a Costco in Tijuana, Mexico. (Fox News Digital/Jon Michael Raasch)

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While the Big Three evening newscasts no longer singularly dominate television the way they did a generation ago, they still reliably pull in 15-20 million viewers a night combined, which still makes them a subject of interest at the MRC.

"People are still watching them. People are still getting their news from them. So I think it's still important to focus on them," Whitlock said. "They're still really impacting a lot of people's lives if you look at the millions of viewers that they're getting. And so it's important to hold them accountable and say, what are you covering or not covering and how are you covering this president and letting him get away with things?"

Supply chain issues from the COVID-19 pandemic created limited availability of many products, including baby formula. The problem became worse when Abbott Laboratories, a top baby formula provider, recalled some products and closed a plant following an FDA probe. Starting earlier this year, millions of anguished parents found themselves struggling to find the formula for their babies, and the empty shelves became yet another political sore spot for the Biden White House. 

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Mothers use formula for their babies rather than breast milk for a variety of reasons, such as difficulty with lactation or latching, lack of time to breastfeed with a busy work schedule and medication interactions, among others.

CNN's Jake Tapper pressed Gina Raimondo earlier this month about President Biden appearing "flat-footed" on inflation and the baby formula shortage.  (Photo by Andrew Harnik - Pool/Getty Images)

Biden said earlier this month he was unaware of the baby formula shortage until April, two months after company executives said they were aware of the "general impact" the February shutdown of Abbott Nutrition's Michigan production plant would immediately have on the U.S. supply.

As the crisis mounted, Biden took action, invoking the Defense Production Act to spur production of more formula domestically, creating a consent decree with the FDA to reopen Abbott Nutrition facility, and issuing FDA guidance to import tens of millions of bottles of formula from abroad.

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Fox News' Julia Musto, Shiv Sudhakar and Megan Meyers contributed to this report.