Media Beat, April 12, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Press Corps Out to Lunch on GOP Lie

With the first 100 days behind us, the press is awash in analysis of Newt Gingrich and the Republican-led Congress, asking: How did they do?

The question could be turned around and aimed at news media: How well did journalists perform in the first 100 days?

While some reporters probed behind the rhetoric, most seemed content to be aboard Gingrich's speeding train -- acting more like stenographers than journalists.

Perhaps the clearest example is the school lunch debate. The House passed a bill that would reduce the amount of food available to school kids. Taking food out of the mouths of children is something that Republicans are understandably defensive about.

So they've taken the offensive...with a big lie, repeated endlessly. And most reporters have ducked and gotten out of the way.

The lie is that -- under the GOP's plan -- funding will increase 4.5 percent next year and in succeeding years. In broadcasts and press quotes, Gingrich has claimed, ''We raised school lunches 4.5 percent for five years.'' He called the charge that Congress is cutting the program ''one of the most horrendously disgusting examples of demagogy I have ever seen.''

The 4.5 percent yearly increase for school lunches has been stated as fact by Republican leaders, in news reports quoting those leaders and in conservative editorials and commentary. Pundits from George Will to John Sununu to Mona Charen have asserted the figure. Charen huffed: ''Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but not to his own facts.''

Here are the facts.

The legislation that passed the House establishes a school nutrition block grant -- combining funds from several federal programs into one grant that will go to the states. The block grant covers not only the school lunch program but the school breakfast program and portions of programs for summer meals, before- and after-school snacks, and low-cost milk.

This year's Congressional Budget Office figures show that these programs currently cost $ 6.52 billion. The Gingrich block grant allocates $ 6.68 bilfor next year, an increase of only 2.5 percent.

Because inflation is running at over 3 percent (and school enrollment is rising), the block grant will cut the amount of food getting to kids through school-based nutrition programs next year.

Under the current food programs, funding automatically rises with increases in food costs and school enrollment -- and the support level for every kid in need is constant.

If Republican leaders think too much is spent on school-based nutrition programs, they should say so. They shouldn't claim a bogus 4.5 percent yearly increase.

Where did they get that figure? They apparently concocted it, as we learned after obtaining a revealing ''worksheet'' prepared by the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee. For cash outlays to ''the school lunch program'' to increase by 4.5 percent, other nutritional programs within the block grant would have to be reduced -- some by as much as 34 percent.

But there's nothing in the legislation mandating that states cut certain food programs so that they can increase school lunch outlays by 4.5 percent. Indeed, the idea behind block grants is to let local authorities make their own decisions. When we asked committee staffers to explain their statistical sleight of hand, we received no answer.

One of the few reporters to press for an answer was Cox News Service reporter Andrew Mollison, who wrote that a House Republican Conference spokesman admitted the 4.5 percent figure was wrong.

Not only are the Republican figures wrong, says Robert Greenstein of the independent Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, but so are their claims that block grant funds will better target food to those in need. About 89 percent of federal school-nutrition funds now benefit low-income children; the block grant requires that only 80 percent benefit such kids.

No commentator has been more out to lunch about school lunches than Rush Limbaugh. On March 10, he rallied his followers: ''Today, we're going to give you marching follow us in lock step.'' Brandishing the 4.5 percent figure, Limbaugh alleged a media ''conspiracy'' against Republicans -- ''a total brainwashing equaled only by the worst days of Stalin, of Pravda, of Tass.''

The truthful one urged his millions of listeners to phone news outlets: ''All you say to them is, 'Stop lying about the school lunch program, thank you' -- and hang up.''

Maybe the thousands of such calls received by journalists had nothing to do with the timid and inadequate coverage of the issue. There's another explanation: Reporters simply didn't bother to look up the numbers.

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