WASHINGTON -- It seemed too good to be true and largely was.
A report released by the Justice Department's acting inspector general on Sept. 20 uncovered a treasure chest of "wasteful or extravagant spending" at law enforcement conferences during the past two administrations. But one item stood out above the others: muffins that were apparently costing the department $16 a pop.
Such an extravagant price tag for a simple baked good was, undoubtedly, the perfect symbol of bureaucratic largess, along the lines of the Pentagon’s $600 toilet seat. But it wasn't actually true. Three days after the study was release, Hilton Hotels (which hosted the conference at which the expenditure was made) clarified that the $16 charge was for a full continental breakfast plus tax. Instead of a detailed invoice, the hotel just listed the charge as "muffins."
By then, however, the damage had been done. CBS News had deemed it "Muffingate." Sen Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) had called for heads to "roll." Fox News' Bill O'Reilly had used the muffin anecdote to launch a screed against raising taxes: "Why should I or you work hard every day so some guy in a suit can have a $16 muffin?" Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) said the "individuals responsible for allowing this flagrant abuse of taxpayer dollars" should be "fired immediately." The Obama administration promised further review.
Quick-trigger denunciations are nothing new to politics. Moreover, many other examples in the inspector general's report -- lunch at $76 per person, coffee at $8.24 a cup -- would support the argument that the department's legal conferences are highly wasteful. (Full disclosure: My wife works at the Justice Department.)
But Muffingate still provides a telling illustration of how relatively minor revelations can be turned into blood-curdling controversies. It also shows how the political and media communities move much faster to trumpet an outrage-inducing story than to set the record straight.
From Sept. 20 through Sept. 28, there were 223 stories that mentioned either "$16 muffins," "$16 per muffin," "sixteen dollar muffin" or "16 dollar muffin," according to a LexisNexis search. Of those, 178 reported the issue critically or didn't even mention the Hilton hotel's response. Thirty-seven stories offered an explanation for the cost of the muffins or attempted to correct the record. Eight simply played off the issue without taking a side (such as figuring out how one would actually make a $16 muffin).
The vast majority of the critical work came before Hilton offered its explanation. Take, for instance, legal analyst Jonathan Turley, who listed several of the extravagant expenditures uncovered in the report but called the muffins "the most incredible."
"Maybe this is why the Justice Department has been so slow to move on torture and war crimes allegations," Turley concluded (in a post that has not yet been updated).
Even after Hilton's statement was issued on Sept. 23, the critical coverage continued. From the 24th through the 28th, there were 21 stories found in the LexisNexis search that presented the muffin anecdote with full context. Thirty-six results didn't.
Take, for instance, the Denver Post editorial page editor, Curtis Hubbard, who wrote a Sept. 25 column titled "The case of the $16 muffins."
"I know what you're thinking: 'No muffin way!' But it's true," Hubbard wrote. "This is not just wasteful spending, it's money-flushing arrogance. At least the Pentagon toilet seats and hammers could be used more than once. ... An unscientific sampling of muffin and coffee prices locally found the combo could be had for $7 at the Four Seasons and for $3 at Indulge Bakery in Lafayette."
Hubbard did not return an email asking if he would update his editorial [updated below].
LexisNexis searches are far from the most scientific measure of media reaction. There were, for instance, a number of duplicate entries (though those were primarily for columns correcting the record on the $16 muffin). The time stamps on some didn't reflect the actual date of publication. The search results also didn't capture web coverage of the issue, which, after the Hilton statement was issued, included some strong record-correcting.
And yet, the results do show how reluctant the media and politicians are to acknowledge that sometimes a myth is just a myth. O'Reilly, for one, kept perpetuating the story (while taking credit for breaking it) during a Sept. 28 appearance on "The Daily Show." And three days after the Hilton statement was released, Sen. Grassley still wasn't mollified, telling Government Executive the following:
The chart in the inspector general report says the muffins cost $16.80 per unit. ... Regardless of whether the $16.80 includes a tip, the bottom line is conference expenses are getting out of hand, and the Justice Department is spending way more on conferences than it did before.
UPDATE: Hubbard put up a blog post on Thursday afternoon acknowledging that the muffin component of his column had been based on limited information. His initial column, which had been published on Sunday, came out before the Hilton issued his statement.