November 4, 2011 10:53 AM
Jon Stewart, Your Muffin Is Ready
Posted by Steven Harper
Everyone who works in the media (and even some who don't) knows about the Friday afternoon "news dump." It's the time-honored method by which the government, industry, and celebrities release stories that they hope will receive little public attention. These dumps happen on Friday afternoons because the items wind up in Saturday morning newspapers that draw far fewer readers than weekday or Sunday editions. Thanks to the Web, these stories can still go viral, but reduced exposure heading into the weekend diminishes the chances that they will.
The problem comes when a dump retracts a story that made earlier headlines; the injustices wrought by the original and incorrect report can persist. At the hands of its own inspector general, the U.S. Department of Justice is the latest victim of that phenomenon. But the episode symbolizes a deeper problem: the power of talking heads, even when they don't know what they're talking about.
Perhaps you recall September 22 (that was a Wednesday) and the headlines about the $16 muffins that showed up in an inspector general's audit of Justice Department expenses associated with a conference that the department had hosted. The story was everywhere—network newscasts and front pages of newspapers. The New York Post's handling was typical: "Feds $16 Muffin Hard to Swallow."
ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN highlighted their prime-time broadcasts with the revelation. Fox News brought out its stable of commentators to blast the feds. Among them, John Stossel's blog for Fox Business used the muffins as a jumping off point for one of his "government is too big" rants. Congressional Democrats and Republicans united in a rare act of bipartisan outrage.
Except the story wasn't true.
Within a day of the original story's appearance, Hilton Hotels explained that the inspector general was mistaken because the $16 cost included a continental breakfast, service, and gratuity. But most of the media ignored that explanation. In fact, even after facts emerged that contradicted what had been dubbed "Muffin-gate," Bill O’Reilly continued to claim credit for "breaking the story" and to exploit it as an example of government waste. He was in rare form during his September 28 appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Which takes us to a Friday afternoon news dump by the DOJ's inspector general. In the Saturday, October 29, 2011 print edition of the Times, an article carrying the following headline appeared on page A11:
"Report of Justice Dept.'s $16 Muffin Greatly Exaggerated." [The title of the online version is "The $16 Muffin That Wasn't."]
The Times noted that the office of the Justice Department inspector general had "retracted its much publicized claim that the agency had spent $16 per breakfast muffin at a conference. And it expressed regret for the 'significant negative publicity' for the department and the hotel that hosted the meeting. . . ." (The Times's own headline covering the original story—"$16 Muffins, and Taxpayers Pick Up the Tab"—was part of that negative publicity.)
It turns out—as Hilton had argued on September 22—that the $16 in question had covered a continental breakfast that also included pastries, fruit, coffee, juice, taxes, a gratuity for the servers, and—oh yes—free use "of a ballroom and a dozen meeting rooms during the five-day conference." Not a bad deal for a decent Washington, D.C., hotel.
This leads to three conclusions:
First, everyone should read Saturday newspapers more carefully.
Second, don't rely on anyone to give you all of the facts, especially the talking heads on TV.
Third, Jon—your muffin is ready and, to mix a metaphor, the ball is in your court. Your colleague, Stephen Colbert, tried to run with this one on his Wednesday, November 2 show, but he fumbled it.
Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at www.thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.
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