Emails Shed Light On How The CDC Looked To Give A ‘Shout Out’ To Michelle Obama

Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
Font Size:

Emails exchanged by Centers for Disease Control press officials show an effort to link a study that found a decrease in childhood obesity to first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, though little evidence connects the two.

One CDC press specialist even gave assurance that a press release she was crafting “gives a shout out” to Obama.

The emails were obtained by The Daily Caller through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“The First Lady is doing a series of events this week to mark the 4th anniversary of Let’s Move so this release highlights the decline in obesity prevalence among children aged 2-5 years,” wrote Karen Hunter, senior press officer at the CDC, in an email written in February.

Hunter and others in the CDC press office were planning press releases for the major study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study was officially published on February 26th. The CDC press release touting its findings and the “Let’s Move” initiative was released on February 25th.

During the same week the study was published, Obama announced two plans related to childhood nutrition. One would restrict certain junk foods in schools and another would revamp food nutrition labels.

The CDC study showed a drastic 43 percent decline in obesity in children between 2 and 5 years old from 2003 and 2012. The New York Times reported the findings in a front page article.

However, the study was criticized by some scientists shortly after publication. Critics cautioned about jumping to conclusions since the study showed flat obesity rates in children between 2 and 19 years old as well as actual increases in obesity rates for some adult demographics.

One common critique was that the sample size of the study was too small to allow a meaningful analysis.

Others felt that even if childhood obesity rates had declined, Obama’s program had little to do with it.

“The programs that have been implemented, from changing what’s in vending machines to the Let’s Move program, target school-age children more than preschoolers,” Lee Kaplan, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center, told Reuters. (RELATED: CDC Official ‘Gets Very Worked Up’ By Interview Requests From Conservatives)

But, however tenuous the study’s findings and the results’ link to Obama’s Let’s Move, CDC emails show an effort to make the connection.

“I didn’t see anything re Let’s Move. Should we assume that the FLOTUS quote would focus on that? Or should we go ahead and add something?” asked CDC staffer Ashleigh May.

Two quotes are attributed to Obama in the February 25th CDC press release.

“I am thrilled at the progress we’ve made over the last few years in obesity rates among our youngest Americans,” said Michelle Obama in the press release.

“With the participation of kids, parents, and communities in Let’s Move! these last four years, healthier habits are beginning to become the new norm,” Obama’s statement continued.

The CDC study itself only mentions “Let’s Move” in a footnote, and only in reference to public health programs that have focused on childhood obesity.

Other emails show discussion over how exuberant press materials on the study should be.

Conne Ward-Cameron, a CDC press specialist, wrote, describing a blog post she was crafting, “It’s very short, but I think that’s what they wanted. And of course gives a shoutout to Mrs. Obama.”

Ward-Cameron’s draft began: “The nation’s focus on obesity, fueled in part by first lady’s Let’s Move! initiative, is showing some positive results.”

That lead one CDC press official to criticize the draft.

“They didn’t use what I sent them and this obviously needs work. I see little balance and a lot of cheerleading,” wrote Jeffrey Lancashire to the study’s lead researcher, Cynthia Ogden.

The blog post did not show up in a search of the CDC and HHS websites, and CDC public affairs specialist Barbara Reynolds said that she was not sure whether the blog post was ever published in either original or revised form.

In an interview with TheDC, Reynolds described the “iterative process” of crafting the press release and expressed some regret that the CDC published it.

“In this case perhaps we would have been better served if perhaps CDC hadn’t put out that press release and allowed another part of the administration to do so,” Reynolds said in a phone interview with TheDC.

“That way it wouldn’t be a question about whether there was undue influence or not,” she said.

“I will tell you that it was more coincidental and an opportunity than it was an orchestrated decision to have one thing happen at the same time as the other,” said Reynolds, who stressed that the CDC has no control over the editorial calendar of the journal that published the study.

The CDC is made aware of forthcoming studies and generally have a four or five day window to decide how to craft their press strategy, said Reynolds.

At that point the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services communicate with each other and with outside bodies to craft press material.

“They took advantage of it, including a quote and information about the Let’s Move project at the same time,” said Reynolds.

“Through [the connection with HHS] we would learn about other things that were going on perhaps in another part of HHS or in the situation with the Let’s Move campaign,” said Reynolds. “And then at those times that we talk about is there a place for something to be included.”

A spokesman for HHS confirmed that the agency sought out commentary from Obama for the press release.

“HHS notified the First Lady’s office of the CDC obesity study, and asked if her office would be interested in providing a quote for the CDC release,” HHS spokesman Tait Sye told TheDC.

Follow Chuck on Twitter