Newsreal: A tale of two families

Why is a white "miracle birth" a major news story and a black "miracle birth" a non-event?

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Published December 2, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

If Jacqueline and Linden Thompson are perplexed over the massive media attention and public outpouring of support for Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey, the parents of the Iowa septuplets, it is understandable.

On May 8, the Washington, D.C., couple set the American record for the longest sextuplet pregnancy at 29 weeks and six days. They also were the first African-American couple to give birth to sextuplets. The children were delivered by Caesarean section. One was delivered stillborn. Mrs. Thompson remained hospitalized for a month at the Georgetown University Medical Center.

Sextuplets are almost unheard of. Other than the Thompsons, there has been only one other recorded birth of sextuplets in the United States this year. Yet unlike the McCaugheys' media-dubbed "miracle birth," the birth of their children stirred no interest in the media. In an extensive search of all major publications, I found no record of any TV news feature, special report or print feature on them in any major daily. If not for a brief news blurb on the Thompson births in the black weekly Jet magazine, the event would have gone completely unnoticed.

It's not hard to figure out why. Unlike the McCaugheys, the Thompsons are a low-income, working-class African-American couple. They do not live in a small, tight-knit mid-American Iowa community. They did not use a fertility drug. As a result, the Thompsons did not get this treatment:

  • Free advertising in major newspapers for their family assistance fund.
  • The donation of a 12-seat Chevrolet van.
  • A year's supply of groceries from a national supermarket chain.
  • An offer by Iowa's governor to build a new and larger home.
  • A year's supply of baby care products.
  • The cover of both Time and Newsweek.
  • A phone call from President Clinton congratulating them on their "amazing adventure."
  • A special invitation to the White House.
  • A bid of $250,000 from a tabloid weekly to tell their story.

The Thompsons' story only became the subject of mild passing interest after the McCaughey septuplets made news and a caller to a black Washington, D.C., radio station complained about the lack of help the Thompsons had received.

This prompted a local community group, Sisters in Touch, to make the Thompsons' plight an issue. The Washington Post did a back-page story on them. But even that wasn't enough to spark the kind of national offers of help that flooded into the McCaugheys.

A Proctor & Gamble spokesperson announced the company would consider a six- to eight-month supply of diapers, but added that this was the standard contribution for families with multiple births. A spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson suggested that the Thompsons contact the company to determine if there are "things we can do."

With the assistance of the D.C. Housing Finance Agency, the Thompsons were able to move out of their cramped one-bedroom duplex unit into a three-bedroom apartment. Since then, they've managed to find a six-bedroom house, but they couldn't move in. Even with Linden Thompson's salary from two jobs, they can't afford the $1,500 rent. However, thanks to growing media awareness of their case, a nonprofit foundation reportedly has offered to give the family a house.

And, as a result of the appeal letters on their behalf by Sisters in Touch (P.O. Box 4337, Largo, MD 20775), they are now receiving free day care at a local child-care center, and they were notified that they will be eligible to enroll their children in the Head Start Program. The group also reports that due to the slightly increased media attention on the Thompsons, a handful of individual and corporate donors have offered to help the family: Chevrolet wants to give them a 1998 Astro, while an auto dealership in New Jersey has weighed in with a Ford Aerostar.

While the Thompsons have been forced to shoulder the tremendous physical and emotional strain and financial burden of caring for five children alone, they have expressed pleasure at the showering of support for the McCaugheys. Their only regret is, as Jacqueline Thompson said, that her community and the nation did not support them the same way. It didn't and still hasn't. And that underscores the general indifference of much of America when the children in need are not media-sensationalized products of "miracle births" but children of the minority poor.

) Pacific News Service

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a contributor to Pacific News Service and the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black."

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