Emails obtained by The Daily Caller show that a spokesman at the Centers for Disease Control told an agency scientist to lie to a reporter to avoid an interview, and that a senior press official at the agency “gets very worked up” by interview requests from conservative media outlets.
The freeze-out came in response to an inquiry into a study released in February by the CDC, which found a drastic, 43-percent decline in obesity rates for children between 2 and 5 years old.
The New York Times touted the findings in a front page article, and both the CDC and first lady Michelle Obama tied the results to her Let’s Move! anti-obesity campaign.
“Karen gets very worked up whenever conservative outlets want to do interviews,” wrote Jeffrey Lancashire, a spokesman for the National Center of Health Statistics, a part of the CDC, in an email to Cynthia Ogden, the lead scientist on the study.
Lancashire was referring to Karen Hunter, a senior press officer at the federal agency.
“But that has caused us trouble in the past,” Lancashire continued, “because it raises unnecessary flags as to why we’re doing some interviews but not others.”
The Daily Caller News Foundation, an affiliate of TheDC, submitted interview requests to Ogden through email and voice mail asking for more insight into the study, and whether she believed Let’s Move! played a factor in the decline in childhood obesity.
Despite finding that obesity among 2 to 5 year-olds had fallen from around 14 percent to just over 8 percent from 2003 to 2012, the study showed that obesity rates were flat for all children between 2 and 19 years old. And for some groups — such as women over 60 — obesity rates had increased during the decade.
“This was a secondary subgroup analysis that used unadjusted data, and a drop was not seen in any other age, gender or race or ethnicity subgroup,” Thomas Robinson, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at Stanford University of Medicine, told TheDCNF in February.
“Tell him you can’t do an interview because you’re on leave and unavailable due to a family activity/event (or just say you’re on leave),” Lancashire wrote Ogden.
Ogden did not take Lancashire’s advice. She did not respond at all to the interview request.
But, according to the emails, which were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Ogden did respond to other media outlets, indicating she was not on leave.
Those other outlets — not just “conservative” ones — questioned the study’s remarkable discovery, and whether or not Obama’s program had anything to do with it.
“I’m seeing these results should be ‘interpreted with caution’. Why is that?” asked a producer from KQED.
A health director at Prevention magazine asked Lancashire if the study was timed to be released during the same week that Obama was announcing two major initiatives in her Let’s Move! campaign.
Other emails show skeptical responses from both outsiders and insiders after the CDC press release and The New York Times article, written by reporter Sabrina Tavernise.
Lawrence Appel, the director of the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology, and Clinical Research at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, sent an email to The New York Times after its glowing coverage of the study.
Both the newspaper and the CDC “shined a bright light on a tenuous and likely spurious finding that the prevalence of obesity in children ages, 2-5, ‘plummeted 43% in a decade,” wrote Appel, noting that the study’s sample size was too low to provide meaningful results.
A Times editor sent Appel’s email to the CDC and to the Times reporter who wrote the initial article.
“We need to respond to this,” Ogden wrote in an email to another CDC staffer.
Appel tells TheDC that he has not received a response from the CDC but that the Journal of the American Medical Association is set to publish a formal letter he submitted. At that point, the study authors will offer a formal response, he said.
“It is really unfortunate that the CDC highlighted such a tenuous finding,” Appel told TheDC.
Other scientists were skeptical of the study, though the Times article focused mainly on supporters.
“Still unfortunate that anyone still thinks this is worth writing about,” wrote Lancashire around a week after the study was published. He was responding to a request from New York Times reporter Michael Moss.
Moss, who did not write the Times’ initial article on the study, said he was “still not getting the 43% drop in obesity.”
Emails from another official — Charles Rothwell, the director of the National Center for Health Statistics — indicate at least some internal skepticism of the study.
“Not that I want to throw cold water on this,” wrote Rothwell in response to an email touting the study’s front page coverage in the Times. “Overall, these results we show are not encouraging and some reporters got the message that there still lies a huge challenge ahead.”
“I agree,” wrote Ogden.
The CDC did not respond to TheDC’s request for comment.