Thursday, February 16, 2012

Tempest in a lunch box

Yesterday, the Pope-funded Carolina Journal misreported that
A preschooler at West Hoke Elementary School ate three chicken nuggets for lunch Jan. 30 because a state employee told her the lunch her mother packed was not nutritious.

The girl’s turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, according to the interpretation of the agent who was inspecting all lunch boxes in her More at Four classroom that day.
Meanwhile the Pope-funded Civitas Institute added, "A state inspector assessing the pre-K program at the school said the girl also needed a vegetable, so the inspector ordered a full school lunch tray for her."

One teensy-weensy problem though--the state employee made no such statement to the girl and ordered no such meal. It's doubtful that the state employee "inspected" the girl's lunch at all.

The Carolina Journal was forced to backtrack on the story, changing the paragraphs from above to
A preschooler at West Hoke Elementary School ate three chicken nuggets for lunch Jan. 30 because the school told her the lunch her mother packed was not nutritious.
Funny, I didn't know that schools could talk.
The girl’s turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, according to the interpretation of the person who was inspecting all lunch boxes in the More at Four classroom that day.
The Carolina Journal explained that "The first two paragraphs of this story were updated. Neither DHHS nor school officials would identify the person who inspected the homemade lunches and decided they did not meet USDA guidelines." Thus, the CJ's initial statements, which were reported as facts (not "alleged" or according to the child or parent), were never confirmed with the school, DHHS, or the person involved.

Indeed, the CJ actually has the gall to now run a story about not being able to identify the person involved, saying that "the government officials involved have provided sketchy — and sometimes conflicting — details" about the person involved, and then lists contradictions from the Civitas story as part of the evidence.

A spokesperson for the school district later admitted that it was likely the school's mistake.

After investigating, the DHHS determined
...no employee of DHHS, nor the Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) or its contractors, instructed any child to replace or remove any meal items. Furthermore, it is not DHHS' policy to inspect, go through or question any child about food items brought from home. The facts we have gathered confirm that no DHHS employee or contractor did this.
The CJ has characterized the results of the DHHS investigation as one of the "sketchy" details.

Compounding the error, U.S. Representatives Larry Kissel and Renee Elmers sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Labor, complaining that "a school official denied a child the right to eat the lunch provided to her by her mother" and "at no point should a government official be allowed to deny a 4-year-old child access to a parent packed lunch or imply to a child that their lunch is wrong or there is a problem with the food provided to them by their mother or father." This despite the fact that none of the people involved has claimed that the little girl was denied access to her lunch.

However, the CJ is now also reporting on the overblown uproar caused by its own irresponsible and incorrect reporting.

Ultimately, what is the great mistake that was made? People who were concerned that a little girl did not have an adequate lunch appear to have put her in a cafeteria line with the intention of having her get an additional free item to go along with the lunch that her mother packed but mistakenly giving her a full, free school lunch instead.

Which all goes to show that the economists' old adage is true--there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Update and note (6:50 p.m., 2/16): This post summarizes and extends a conversation at Doug Clark's blog.

As part of that conversation, the publisher of the CJ, John Hood, wrote
CJ did not report that the person in question personally intervened to keep the girl from eating her packed lunch. Nor did we report that the packed lunch was confiscated.

...The only reason we changed a couple of words in our initial story is that other news media were misreading them and inventing events that did not happen — and that CJ never reported as happening — such as a government health inspector confiscating the kid's turkey sandwich. We noted that there is no doubt which institution dealt with the kid. It was the school, not the inspector.
That's funny, because besides contradicting the explanation that the CJ actually posted, the statement is belied by CJ's headline on its initial story "Preschooler’s Homemade Lunch Replaced with Cafeteria 'Nuggets:' State agent inspects sack lunches, forces preschoolers to purchase cafeteria food instead."

In addition to the economics free lunch adage, there is an even older adage that says "what a tangled web we weave, when we first practice to deceive."

Update #2 (8:00 p.m. 2/16): Covering its tracks, the CJ has sent the words "forces" and "to" from the article headline down the memory hole. No explanation given by CJ, and frankly, none expected.

People who tell the truth from the start never don't have to change their stories.

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