Networks Boost First Lady in ‘Food Fight’ Over School Lunches

More than 60 percent of outside experts in ABC, CBS and NBC reports argue in favor of school lunch requirements.

With the help of the news media, First Lady Michelle Obama continued to lambast critics of the school lunch program changes she helped pass in 2010.

“What we need to do is lend a hand to the schools that are struggling, not roll back the standards and say, ‘Oh, well. The kids don’t like it so let them eat cake,” Obama said, according to The Hill.

The most recent debate over school lunches came after some members of Congress took action to loosen those food rules. The Washington Post reported on May 29 that the House Appropriations Committee voted to allow schools to opt out of new rules, temporarily. The bill would grant one-year waivers to schools that lost money. Of course, Obama wasn’t happy about this at all. She held a discussion with nutritionists at the White House, criticized the possible waivers in a New York Times op-ed and more. All of that made her a “gladiator,” according to ABC “World News” anchor Diane Sawyer.

Obama’s most recent “food fight” with Congress over school lunch exemptions earned plenty of media coverage, including nine reports from the broadcast network’s morning and evening news shows. Obama was quoted heavily on those networks, but other experts were also used to boost the same case. Of the non-journalists quoted in those stories, 11 (61 percent) of them promoting the lunch requirements, while just 7 (39 percent) were critical of the rules in some way.

The new school lunch nutritional requirements have been beset by criticism and not just from disgusted children tweeting photos of their lunches. PBS reported in September 2013, that 524 schools dropped out of the federal school lunch program since new standards were implemented. Most did not provide an explanation for leaving the program.

In February 2014, The Washington Times said cafeteries were struggling to comply with the rules “leaving the menu so expensive or unpalatable that more than 1 million students have stopped buying lunch.”

Even The National School Boards Association complained about the inflexibility of the “rigid mandates of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” according to The Daily Signal.

The networks described also the first lady in flattering ways in many of those recent reports. She “championed” the changes, according to the May 27 “Today” show. On May 29, “Today” co-host Tamron Hall said she “has made kids and eating healthy a priority during her time in the White House.” Those descriptions sound so much better than saying she pushed stringent and inflexible regulations that have frustrated students and school districts around the country.

Another segment tilted in the first lady’s favor came from CBS “This Morning” on May 28. Nancy Cordes’ report quoted Michelle Obama four separate times and President Barack Obama once. The only opposing view was Leah Schmidt, School Nutrition Association president, who said school districts needed time to “catch our breath.”

But the imbalance of quotes in that story wasn’t the only evidence CBS shared Mrs. Obama’s attitude. Following the report, co-host Charlie Rose said, “She more than anybody else is keeping the focus on this very important topic.” Fellow co-host Gayle King chimed in, “That’s right,” and Norah O’Donnell agreed. King then said, “I will never understand the downside to encouraging people to eat healthy.”  

O’Donnell replied, “I know,” before citing obesity statistics and insisting “there have to be changes made.”

Networks Also Turn to Food Police, School Officials to Promote School Lunch Rules

Although the first lady was frequently quoted and her arguments summarized by network journalists, ABC, CBS and NBC also turned to other sources promoting the school lunch regulations.

CBS consulted Margo Wootan, of the left-wing food police group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), on May 20 “This Morning.” National Correspondent Chip Reid didn’t label CSPI in any way, leaving viewers without any idea that the group has sought to ban, tax or regulate all kinds of food. CSPI has warned of dangers from water, milk, bread, eggs and many more foods.

NBC also quoted Michelle Obama’s Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy, Sam Kass, in a May 27 “Nightly News” broadcast defending criticism that Obama’s “Let’s Move” program misses the point.

Jonathan Karl, chief White House correspondent for ABC, turned to San Diego School District food service director Gary Petill, to undercut Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill. Petill declared that “If you offer healthy, and only healthy, they’ll eat healthy.”

Karl also gave Michelle Obama the last word in a way, by stating “as for the complaint about food getting thrown out, the first lady said that’s not happening so much anymore because the healthy menus are beginning to catch on.”

Networks Just Eat Up First Lady’s Projects, From ‘Let’s Move’ to Drink Water

The networks’ admiration for Obama when it came to school lunches was in synch with previous coverage of her pet projects.

For example, her “Let’s Move” campaign garnered praise in February for a victory that might not have happened.

ABC and CBS claimed data showed childhood obesity declining and suggested her efforts helped make it happen. But in March Reuters reported that the CDC claim about the obesity rate wasn’t what it seemed to be. On March 16, Reuters said, “If the news last month that the prevalence of obesity among American preschoolers had plunged 43 percent in a decade sounded too good to be true, that's because it probably was.”

The networks promoted a White-House video of President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden jogging to promote the fourth anniversary of the “Let’s Move” campaign. NBC’s “Today” also acted as PR flack for the first lady, sharing her video telling people to drink more water in September 2013.

“Good Morning America” conveniently ignored the first lady’s role in the new requirements for school lunches when they reported in August 2013 that schools were dropping out of the program. They quoted a student who said “the food is just nasty,” but didn’t say a word about Obama’s promotion of the strict new guidelines. One school superintendent said her district lost $30,000 in the first three months of implementation.

— Julia A. Seymour is Assistant Managing Editor for MRC Business at the Media Research Center. Follow Julia A. Seymour on Twitter.