Hoax or Honest Mistake, Reportage Gave False Hope

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In the 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama acknowledged the work done by the First Lady to get her anti-obesity program off the ground. In his 2014 State of the Union speech, the President said, “Michelle’s Let’s Move partnership with schools, businesses, and local leaders has helped bring down childhood obesity rates for the first time in thirty years.”

While many professionals familiar with the field shook their heads in honest bewilderment, some critics went on full red alert. On the PoliticalOutcast.com website, Mark Horne called this “bizarre and unbelievable,” a “crazy pretense,” and even an “insane claim” in a piece titled “If The President Can Credit Michelle Obama With Lowering Childhood Obesity, Then He can Get Away With Anything.” Horne quoted a source stating merely that the increase in obesity rates had slowed down since 2005, and noted that decelerated growth is hardly the same as a decrease.

The following month, Associated Press journalist Mike Stobbe wrote about a report published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) about a Centers for Disease Control study. The editor of an Oregon newspaper titled the syndicated story, “Sharp decline in child obesity, but only for preschoolers.” The exact same story was titled by a local editor in Illinois, “Childhood obesity down more than 40 percent, new study says.” Despite their wildly disparate titles, the content of both stories was the same, and both included the sentence:

The main finding was that, overall, both adult and childhood obesity rates have held flat in the past decade. And there were no significant changes in most age groups.

In March, Sharon Begley of Reuters put it like this:

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, researchers say…

As obesity specialists take a closer look at the data, some are questioning the 43 percent claim, suggesting that it may be a statistical fluke and pointing out that similar studies find no such decrease in obesity among preschoolers.

In fact, based on the researchers’ own data, the obesity rate may have even risen rather than declined.

Begley went on to explain in exquisite and protracted detail exactly what the CDC study reported in JAMA actually said and meant, and why so many interpreters grabbed the wrong end of the stick. Her unpacking of all the nuances influenced others, and led to a few headlines in the vein of “That Big Childhood Obesity Decline May Have Been a Statistical Error.”

Alert observers began to understand that positive change had only taken place in the toddler demographic, ages two to five, and even that wasn’t a sure thing. However, as we said at the time, from the way some media outlets carried on, a person could easily think the entire childhood obesity epidemic had been irrevocably and eternally vanquished.

Other news overtook the obesity decline controversy, until the following August 15, when in a Proclamation, President Obama harkened back to the introduction of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, then in its fifth year, and gave an amended version of his previous, misleadingly positive claims:

Since then, childhood obesity rates have stopped rising, and we have seen an encouraging drop in obesity rates among children ages 2 to 5 years old.

Not long afterward, in October of 2015, the thorny topic surfaced again, now looking like not quite such an innocent mistake. Back when the 2014 State of the Union speech was delivered, the Daily Caller had glommed onto the discrepancy of viewpoints and immediately filed FOIA requests for email records, which they did not receive until 17 months later. Chuck Ross reported on how…

[…] the White House seized on one slight glimmer of hope — the finding that obesity rates for children between two and five years old fell from 13.9 percent in 2003-2004 to 8.4 percent in 2011-2012.

[…] the White House wanted the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to highlight that news while ignoring the rest in order to lend credence to Michelle’s pet childhood obesity project — “Let’s Move.”

Among other items, the investigative journalists found an email from a senior CDC press officer to three co-workers saying, “Well our press release is skewed to highlight the good news per HHS request.” The reporters went back in time to compare the original press releases that had started the whole dispute.

These were the headlines:

  • JAMA — “Obesity Prevalence Remains High in U.S.; No Significant Change in Recent Years”
  • CDC — “New CDC data show encouraging development in obesity rates among 2 to 5 year olds”

Ross wrote:

The full extent of the White House’s pressure on HHS and CDC to spin the study in favor of “Let’s Move” is not clear. Many of the 713 pages of emails are withheld, citing executive privilege invoked by the White House. But the government’s footprint is evident in the differences between JAMA’s press release and the CDC’s.

The effect of the fudging was evident. Even the usually conscientious New York Times went with a sensational “Obesity Rate for Young Children Plummets 43% in a Decade.” Of course even then, before the incriminating emails were uncovered, there was pushback.

Lawrence Appel of Johns Hopkins wrote to the Times editor, “It is really unfortunate that the CDC highlighted such a tenuous finding,” and senior CDC scientist Katherine Flegal went off the reservation and wrote, “The finding is exaggerated and questionable in a variety of ways, and the HHS press release made far too much of it.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “If The President Can Credit Michelle Obama With Lowering Childhood Obesity, Then He can Get Away With Anything,” PoliticalOutcast.com, 01/29/14
Source: “Childhood obesity down more than 40 percent, new study says,” Daily-Journal.com, 02/25/14
Source: “A plunge in U.S. preschool obesity? Not so fast, experts say,” Reuters.com, 03/16/14
Source: “That Big Childhood Obesity Decline May Have Been a Statistical Error,” NationalReview.com, 03/18/14
Source: “Presidential Proclamation — National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, 2015,” WhiteHouse.gov, 08//31/15
Source: “Emails Show White House Pressured Health Agencies To Highlight ‘Tenuous’ Childhood Obesity Research,” DailyCaller.com, 10/19/15
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Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
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