Much Ado About Muffin: The Media's Failure To Report The Truth About "Muffin-gate"

Blog ››› ››› ROB SAVILLO

When the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General published a September 2011 audit of conference expenses, the media focused on one finding in particular: the claim that the Justice Department had once paid $4,200 for 250 muffins at a conference in Washington -- or more than $16 per muffin. And as dubbed by ABC's Erica Hill, CBS, and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, "Muffin-gate" was born, reinforcing a common conservative narrative of wasteful government spending. As O'Reilly himself said on September 21: "But the $16 muffin now becomes a symbol of how wasteful the feds are with our tax dollars."

Within days, Hilton Worldwide, which hosted the 2009 conference in question, disputed the claim: "In Washington, the contracted breakfast included fresh fruit, coffee, juice, muffins, tax and gratuity for an inclusive price of $16 per person." And within a week of that, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the DOJ claimed "the actual price was $14.29 per person per day," and that "included breakfast and rental fees for the workshop space and conference rooms." Furthermore, Bloomberg reported that the IG's office subsequently "conceded that it might not have been in possession of all the facts." The IG's office told the magazine: "Since our report was issued, the Capital Hilton has stated that other food and beverage items, such as coffee, tea, and fruit, were included in the charged amount." The IG's link for the report now only states:

In September 2011, the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General issued audit report number 11-43, Audit of Department of Justice Conference Planning and Food and Beverage Costs. After our report was issued, the Office of the Inspector General received additional documents concerning the food and beverage costs at one conference that had not previously been provided during the audit. We have reviewed these documents and will issue a revised report in the near future.

Sam Stein of The Huffington Post investigated print coverage of the story and concluded that only 37 of the 223 articles that pushed the $16-muffin myth "offered an explanation for the cost of the muffins or attempted to correct the record." He added that Bill O'Reilly continued to push the falsehood (and even took credit for breaking the story) during a September 28 appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart -- after Hilton disputed the $16-muffin claim.

Media Matters reviewed the transcripts of broadcast and cable news and the articles of the top five national newspapers for coverage of this story. Contrary to the fervor with which the media reported the initial claim from the IG, few outlets followed up with the updates from Hilton or the IG's office, leaving their audiences in the dark about the truth of the $16 muffin.

Key Findings

  • The major broadcast news networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) all reported the Inspector General's initial $16-muffin claim but failed to report that Hilton disputed it and that the IG later walked it back.
  • The Washington Post ran the initial $16-muffin story on the front page but buried the Hilton's response on page 16 of the news section.
  • The New York Times and USA Today reported the Inspector General's initial claim without any follow-up.
  • Fox News -- Bill O'Reilly's coverage in particular -- was the only cable network that failed to report any of the statements that called the claim into question.

Full Results

Broadcast

Perhaps the most egregious offenders in reporting this information accurately were the newscasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC. All three networks initially reported the Inspector General's $16 figure, and not one followed up with either Hilton disputing that claim or the later admission from the Inspector General's office that they may not have had all the facts. Particularly striking are two CBS segments during the Evening News and The Early Show that aired on September 23 -- one day after the Associated Press reported that Hilton had disputed the cost figure.

(Note: In the tables below, reports that were published or broadcast before the IG's claims were brought into question are marked as "N/A" in the appropriate column.)

Date

Hour

Network

Program

Reported $16-muffin figure from IG

Reported that the accuracy of the IG's claim was questioned

9/21/2011

7:00 a.m.

ABC

Good Morning America

Yes

N/A

9/21/2011

6:30 p.m.

ABC

World News with Diane Sawyer

Yes

N/A

9/20/2011

6:30 p.m.

CBS

CBS Evening News

Yes

N/A

9/21/2011

4:00 a.m.

CBS

CBS Morning News

Yes

N/A

9/21/2011

7:00 a.m.

CBS

The Early Show

Yes

N/A

9/23/2011

6:30 p.m.

CBS

CBS Evening News

Yes

No

9/23/2011

7:00 a.m.

CBS

The Early Show

Yes

No

9/21/2011

6:30 p.m.

NBC

NBC Nightly News

Yes

N/A

Newspapers

Out of the five national newspapers (Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal), The Post devoted the most space to this story. In a 12-day period, the paper published nine pieces that mentioned the $16 figure. Its September 21 story, "Many find Justice Dept.'s $16 muffins hard to swallow," ran on the front page, but -- as Luke Russert pointed out -- the AP follow-up article that The Post published on September 23 reporting that Hilton disputed the IG's findings was buried on page 16 of the news section.

Also on Septmber 23, The Post printed two pieces that used the $16-muffin figure as a punch-line ("An addendum, if you will, to that Cheney book" and "Upscale looks brand new on Prince William"), and the paper later published one on September 25 that used it as an example of waste ("How HP, Silicon Valley's darling, became a soap opera"). The paper did publish one opinion piece critical of the $16-muffin claim ("Fiscal Trivial Pursuit"). And in his Post column, ombudsman Patrick Pexton later criticized the paper's coverage and concluded, "All of us scribes love nothing more than to do a front-page story with national impact as this one had. But our first duty is to get as close to the truth as possible even if that's a bit less sensational."

Both The New York Times and USA Today ran articles reporting the initial $16-muffin figure from the Inspector General. Neither paper followed up with Hilton's criticism of that claim or the IG's subsequent statement.

The Los Angeles Times ran two wire stories (from Reuters and the AP, respectively). The first reported the IG's $16 figure, and the second reported that Hilton disputed it.

The Wall Street Journal did not cover the story, according to a search of Factiva.

Date

Publication

Headline

Section/Page

Reported $16-muffin figure from IG

Reported that the accuracy of the IG's claim was questioned

9/21/2011

Los Angeles Times

LATE BRIEFING; WASHINGTON, D.C.; Agency paid $16 a muffin

SECTION: LATEXTRA; News Desk; Part AA; Pg. 2

Yes

N/A

9/23/2011

Los Angeles Times

LATE BRIEFING; WASHINGTON, D.C.; Hilton disputes cost of muffins

SECTION: LATEXTRA; National Desk; Part AA; Pg. 2.

Yes

Yes

9/21/2011

New York Times

$16 Muffins, and Taxpayers Pick Up the Tab

SECTION: Section A; Column 0; National Desk; Pg. 20

Yes

N/A

9/21/2011

USA Today

NOAA: Residents ignored Joplin sirens

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 3A.

Yes

N/A

9/21/2011

Washington Post

Many find Justice Dept.'s $16 muffins hard to swallow

SECTION: A-SECTION; Pg. A01

Yes

N/A

9/21/2011

Washington Post

Breaking down Justice's food bill

SECTION: A-SECTION; Pg. A19.

Yes

N/A

9/22/2011

Washington Post

Obama orders conference-spending review

SECTION: A-SECTION; Pg. A19

Yes

N/A

9/23/2011

Washington Post

An addendum, if you will, to that Cheney book

SECTION: A-SECTION; Pg. A16

Yes

No

9/23/2011

Washington Post

Upscale looks brand new on Prince William

SECTION: METRO; Pg. B04

Yes

No

9/23/2011

Washington Post

$16 muffins? No, says Hilton.

SECTION: A-SECTION; Pg. A16.

Yes

Yes

9/25/2011

Washington Post

How HP, Silicon Valley's darling, became a soap opera

SECTION: BUSINESS; Pg. G01.

Yes

No

9/28/2011

Washington Post

Fiscal Trivial Pursuit

SECTION: EDITORIAL COPY; Pg. A15.

Yes

Yes

10/2/2011

Washington Post

Recipe for a $16 muffin

SECTION: EDITORIAL COPY; Pg. A17.

Yes

Yes

10/7/2011 Washington Post Government frugality billed as waste [letters to the editor] EDITORIAL COPY; Pg. A20. Yes Yes

Cable News

Of the cable networks, Fox News and Fox Business devoted the most air time to the story and were the only channels that failed to report both Hilton's statement disputing the IG's $16 figure and the Inspector General's subsequent admission. (Our analysis of cable news is limited to transcripts available in Nexis and therefore excludes daytime broadcasts on Fox and MSNBC.)

Bill O'Reilly's coverage was particularly aggressive; between September 21 and 29, the Fox News host devoted at least one segment during each of four separate broadcasts to the topic. He even brought up the $16 figure on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart during an interview for his new book (that broadcast is not included in the data). Two weeks later, O'Reilly continued to push the story as fact in three separate episodes of The O'Reilly Factor -- even after the claim was called into question.

CNN covered the IG's $16 figure throughout September 21; American Morning in particular aired several segments of the story, and Anderson Cooper 360 devoted some time during its evening programming. Even after $16 figure had been called into question, Anderson Cooper revisited the claim by highlighting a viewer-submitted caption for a photo of President Obama that read, "Obama: Excuse me, could we get some muffins? Those good $16 ones, thanks."

The network reported Hilton's statement disputing the $16-muffin claim during two editions of CNN Newsroom, which airs during the day. Two weeks later, an update from the network aired during a segment on CNN Newsroom, where guest Bill Adair of Politifact said that the story "gets a mostly false" on the truth-o-meter.

No CNBC shows in the Nexis database mentioned the story. Similarly, MSNBC did not cover the initial story during its evening hours, but Ed Schultz did later take O'Reilly to task for his repeated hammering of the $16-muffin claim, which Schultz noted had been debunked:

Dude, give it a rest on the muffins, will you? First of all, O`Reilly did not break the story. But more importantly, the story itself is bogus. The 16-dollar amount was wrong. According to the folks at the Hilton where the conference was actually held, the Justice Department paid $14.29 per person, per day, which included all food and fees for the workspace and conference rooms they used.

Date

Hour

Network

Program

Reported $16-muffin figure from IG

Reported that the accuracy of the IG's claim was questioned

9/21/2011

5:00 a.m.

CNN

American Morning: Wake Up Call

Yes

N/A

9/21/2011

6:00 a.m.

CNN

American Morning

Yes

N/A

9/21/2011

3:00 p.m.

CNN

CNN Newsroom

Yes

N/A

9/21/2011

10:00 p.m.

CNN

Anderson Cooper 360

Yes

N/A

9/22/2011

7:00 a.m.

CNN

American Morning

Yes

N/A

9/23/2011

4:00 p.m.

CNN

CNN Newsroom

Yes

Yes

9/24/2011

2:00 p.m.

CNN

CNN Newsroom

Yes

Yes

10/3/2011

10:00 p.m.

CNN

Anderson Cooper 360 [viewer mail]

Yes

No

10/10/2011 12:00 p.m. CNN Newsroom Yes Yes

9/20/2011

6:00 p.m.

Fox News

Special Report with Bret Baier

Yes

N/A

9/20/2011

5:00 p.m.

Fox Business

The Willis Report

Yes

N/A

9/21/2011

8:00 p.m.

Fox Business

Freedom Watch with Judge Napolitano

Yes

N/A

9/21/2011

6:00 a.m.

Fox Business

Imus in the Morning

Yes

N/A

9/21/2011

10:00 p.m.

Fox News

On the Record with Greta Van Susteren

Yes

N/A

9/21/2011

8:00 p.m.

Fox News

The O'Reilly Factor

Yes

N/A

9/21/2011

5:00 p.m.

Fox Business

The Willis Report

Yes

N/A

9/22/2011

8:00 p.m.

Fox News

The O'Reilly Factor [viewer mail]

Yes

No

9/23/2011

8:00 p.m.

Fox News

Freedom Watch with Judge Napolitano

Yes

No

9/23/2011

9:00 p.m.

Fox News

Hannity

Yes

No

9/23/2011

8:00 p.m.

Fox News

The O'Reilly Factor

Yes

No

9/23/2011

6:00 p.m.

Fox News

Special Report with Bret Baier

Yes

No

9/29/2011

10:00 p.m.

Fox News

On the Record with Greta Van Susteren

Yes

No

9/29/2011

8:00 p.m.

Fox News

The O'Reilly Factor

Yes

No

10/6/2011 8:00 p.m. Fox News The O'Reilly Factor Yes No
10/12/2011 8:00 p.m. Fox News The O'Reilly Factor Yes No
10/13/2011 8:00 p.m. Fox News The O'Reilly Factor Yes No
10/14/2011 8:00 p.m. Fox News The O'Reilly Factor Yes No

9/29/2011

10:00 p.m.

MSNBC

The Ed Show with Ed Schultz

Yes

Yes

Methodology

Media Matters reviewed all transcripts and articles in the Nexis database for broadcast news (ABC, CBS, and NBC), cable news (CNBC, CNN, Fox Business, Fox News, and MSNBC), and national newspapers (Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post) between September 20 and October 25, 2011 that included the word "muffin." We used Factiva to search The Wall Street Journal for "muffin" during the same date range. We did not include any online content.

Any mention of the $16 cost of a single muffin cited by the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice was enough to include that particular show or article in the data.

Timeline of events

The Associated Press first reported on September 22 that Hilton Worldwide disputes the IG's claim.

On September 29, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the IG's office "might not have been in possession of all the facts." The magazine also reported the IG office's statement acknowledging Hiton disputing the $16-muffin claim: "Since our report was issued, the Capital Hilton has stated that other food and beverage items, such as coffee, tea, and fruit, were included in the charged amount."

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