Muffin-gate Update: Many Outlets Fail To Correct Half-Baked Allegation

Blog ››› ››› ROB SAVILLO

When the Justice Department's Inspector General alleged in September that the DOJ had paid more than $16 per muffin at a 2009 conference, most major media outlets rushed to cover this latest example of "outrageous spending" by the government. But several of those same outlets -- Fox, CBS, NBC, and USA Today -- have failed to report that the IG has since retracted that claim.

Last Week, Media Matters released a report detailing coverage of the IG's initial allegation. Our study revealed that while network news, cables news, and top national newspapers reported on the $16-muffin claim, few outlets followed up when the IG's $16 figure was called into question by the Hilton hotel that hosted the conference.

On Friday, the IG's office officially retracted the $16-muffin claim. Here's a look at how the media outlets that initially reported the erroneous allegation have handled (or ignored) the IG's retraction.

Key Findings

  • Fox News and Fox Business pushed $16-muffin story the most out of any cable channel (Bill O'Reilly, in particular, on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor), but no Fox program available in the Nexis database has broadcast a follow-up segment reporting the IG's retraction.
  • CBS and NBC both reported the initial $16 figure from the IG but have not broadcast a follow-up story about the IG's retraction.
  • USA Today ran a short article reporting the $16 figure but has not reported on the IG's retraction.
  • The Washington Post ran the initial story on the front page while running all subsequent follow-ups, including the IG's retraction, inside the paper.



In September, CBS broadcast segments on CBS Morning News, CBS Evening News, and The Early Show reporting the IG's initial claim about $16 muffins. During the September 20 edition of CBS Evening News, anchor Scott Pelley said, "There's a report out of Washington today that left a lot of people shaking their heads in disbelief. The Inspector General of the Department of Justice has found outrageous spending in that department -- money poured into receptions and conferences."

CBS has not broadcast a report of the IG's subsequent retraction of the $16 figure.


NBC broadcast a segment on the September 21 edition of NBC Nightly News that reported that "the Justice Department spent more than $16 a piece for muffins." Like CBS, NBC has not followed up with the IG's retraction of the claim that the DOJ paid $16 per muffin.


ABC broadcast two stories, one on Good Morning America and one on World News with Diane Sawyer, that reported the IG's initial $16 figure. During the September 21 edition of Good Morning America, Josh Elliott reported in a news headline that "the US Justice Department is coming under fire for doing far too much of it. A new audit finds the Department spent more than $120 million on conferences alone. Expenses included $16 for each muffin that was served." World News' Jonathan Karl similarly reported that day, "Nobody can tell us how an ordinary muffin like this could cost $16. But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways Washington wastes your money."

But unlike CBS and NBC, World News broadcast a follow-up report after the IG retracted the $16 claim. On October 28, anchor Diane Sawyer reported, "And do you remember muffin-gate? Well, never mind. The $16 muffin that became a symbol of government waste? The Justice Department rechecked those numbers and apologized today. The $16 actually covered the cost of a continental breakfast for each person attending a Justice Department conference."


The Washington Post

The Post's coverage of the initial story was the most extensive of any of the newspapers analyzed in our previous report. Among other pieces, the paper ran the story on page 1 of the paper, asking, "Where does a muffin cost more than $16? At a government conference, it turns out." Although The Post did subsequently publish a report that Hilton disputed the claim, it was buried deep within the paper. In his October 2 column, Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton criticized of the paper's handling of the story. The Post did subsequently report on the IG's retraction, but that article ran inside the paper on page 2.

From The Washington Post's October 29 follow up:

The new report does not break out a cost for the muffins alone, but a Hilton spokesman has said the entire breakfast cost $16 a person, including taxes and gratuity.

"The department did not pay $16 per muffin,'' [acting Justice Department Inspector General Cynthia A.] Schnedar's office wrote, saying that the office regretted the error and that the original conclusion "brought significant negative publicity to the Department and the Capital Hilton.''

USA Today

USA Today published the initial story of the IG's $16 claim in a brief report in its September 21 paper: "The Justice Department's inspector general found excessive spending on food and beverages at conferences that included muffins costing $16 apiece." The paper did not report on the IG's subsequent retraction of the claim.

The New York Times

The Times reported the initial story of the IG's $16 claim in its September 21 paper: "The Justice Department on Tuesday came under criticism for 'extravagant and potentially wasteful' spending on conferences at the end of the Bush administration and early in the Obama administration, including paying $16 per muffin." The paper did report the IG's retraction of the claim in its October 29 edition:

The office of the Justice Department inspector general on Friday 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 for the hotel that hosted the meeting that resulted from the erroneous finding in a report last month.

The Los Angeles Times

The Times published the initial Reuters wire story of the IG's $16 claim and subsequently published a report about Hilton disputing the IG's claim. The paper also reported the IG's retraction of the $16-muffin claim on October 30:

Remember all that political indigestion over $16 muffins served at a Justice Department conference in Washington? It turns out to be a half-baked story.

The department's office of the inspector general said Friday that it was wrong. "The department did not pay $16 per muffin," it said.

Cable News

Fox News and Fox Business

Shows on both Fox News and Fox Business covered the IG's original $16-muffin claim extensively: Four Fox News evening shows (Special Report with Bret Baier, The O'Reilly Factor, Hannity, and On the Record with Greta Van Susteren) and three Fox Business shows (Imus in the Morning, The Willis Report, and Freedom Watch with Judge Napolitano) reported the IG's initial figure. Bill O'Reilly was particularly aggressive on his show, covering the topic on seven different broadcasts. From his September 21 show:

O'REILLY: A couple of examples of craziness. At a training conference in August '09, $4,200 was spent on 250 muffins. That adds up to $16 per muffin. Now, I'm sure they were delicious muffins. I'm sure they were presented in a pleasing way. But the $16 muffin now becomes a symbol of how wasteful the feds are with our tax dollars.

Not one Fox News or Fox Business show available in Nexis followed up with statements from Hilton disputing this claim or the IG's later retraction of the $16-muffin figure. (Daytime Fox shows are not available in Nexis and are not included in this study.)


CNN reported the initial story during several programs: American Morning: Wake Up Call, American Morning, CNN Newsroom, and Anderson Cooper 360. American Morning co-host Carol Costello reported on September 21: "Talk about wasteful spending. An internal Justice Department audit has uncovered the agency provided people at a Washington gathering in 2009 with $16 muffins."

CNN Newsroom did broadcast two subsequent segments reporting that Hilton disputed the IG's $16-muffin claim and one segment with Politifact Editor Bill Adair, where he labeled the allegation "mostly false." Out of these programs, though, only Anderson Cooper 360 reported the IG's official retraction of the $16 figure. Additionally, CNN Saturday Morning News reported the IG's retraction.

From the October 28 episode of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360:

COOPER: Also, something completely different tonight, the big muffin mistake. Remember all that talk of the Justice Department spending more than $16 apiece for muffins? Well, the story has changed. We'll explain.


SUSAN HENDRICKS: Oops. The Justice Department inspector general admits it made a mistake when it said the agency spent more than $16 on each muffin at the legal conference. The price tag was met with outrage. People were furious. A revised report does not show the actual cost of those notorious muffins.

From the October 29 episode of CNN's Saturday Morning News:

ALINA CHO: Muffin mania may have been a bit overblown in Washington. The Department of Justice was blasted recently when a report came out - remember this -- saying they paid 16 bucks apiece for muffins at a conference back in 2009. It was seen as a major example of out-of- control spending. Now the inspector who did the report says they may have gotten it wrong.

The hotel provided new documents showing that the word "muffins" was used to describe the entire food spread. But they didn't say just how much the actual muffins cost. We're investigating.


No MSNBC show available in Nexis covered the IG's initial allegation. (Daytime MSNBC shows are not in Nexis.) MSNBC host Ed Schultz did reference the story on the September 29 edition of The Ed Show, and he used his time to criticize O'Reilly's inaccurate coverage:

SCHULTZ: 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.

Schultz again highlighted comments from O'Reilly during his October 31 show. He showed O'Reilly saying, "I want to remind you not to make statements you can't back up on this network. We don't do that on this network. Other networks do. We don't."

As Schultz pointed out, O'Reilly has yet to report that the IG has retracted the $16-muffin claim.


Media Matters reviewed all transcripts and articles in the Nexis database for outlets that reported the initial $16-muffin claim from the IG. This search included broadcast news (ABC, CBS, and NBC), cable news (CNN, Fox Business, and Fox News), and national newspapers (Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post) between October 28 and November 2, 2011 that included the word "muffin." CNBC did not cover the story on any program in Nexis. According to a Factiva search, The Wall Street Journal did not cover this story. We did not include any online-only content.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.