Today's story, "Michelle Obama's Agenda Includes Healthful Eating," quotes the First Lady throughout, in ways that might suggest that she gave an interview to Swarns. But Swarns failed to make entirely clear that Mrs. Obama's quotes were from last month, and today's Dining Section acted as though the February 23 Burros story never existed.
Swarns failed to clarify the source of Mrs. Obama's quotes in ways that may have suggested to readers that she had interviewed her for the story. Intentionally or not, her story read as a fresh report on Mrs. Obama's support for the use of unprocessed, home-grown foods, which it wasn't.
Here's how Swarns packaged her first reference to Mrs. Obama's public appearance before reporters, including Burros, in the White House kitchen. Read it carefully:
A few days later, she invited television cameras into the White House kitchen and made a point of praising the chefs’ nutritious creations, including creamed spinach without the cream.
Mrs. Obama presented herself not as a celebrity who has appeared on the cover of Vogue — though, of course, she has appeared on the cover of Vogue — but as a down-to-earth mom who works hard to keep in shape and to please the palates of her two daughters, Sasha, 7, and Malia, 10, who sometimes wrinkle their noses at the greenery on their plates.
“It’s like: How do we keep the calories down but keep the flavors up?” said Mrs. Obama, who also praised a healthy broccoli soup prepared by White House chefs.
“That’s one of the things that we’re talking a lot about,” she said. “When you grow something yourself and it’s close and it’s local, oftentimes it tastes really good.“And when you’re dealing with kids, for example, you want to get them to try that carrot. Well, if it tastes like a real carrot and it’s really sweet, they’re going to think that it’s a piece of candy. So my kids are more inclined to try different vegetables if they’re fresh and local and delicious.”
It's unclear from the above passage that Mrs. Obama's comments came from the White House kitchen visit in February. The transition to what follows doesn't make clear that the next four paragraphs all refer to that event.
But we know it does -- at least those of us who remember Marian Burros's account of it in the NYT that appeared on February 23:
The first lady took the opportunity to put in a pitch for local and sustainable food and for healthy eating, a recurring theme of hers during the campaign and since she arrived in Washington.
When food is grown locally, she said, “oftentimes it tastes really good, and when you’re dealing with kids, you want to get them to try that carrot.”“If it tastes like a real carrot, and it’s really sweet, they’re going to think that it’s a piece of candy,” she continued. “So my kids are more inclined to try different vegetables if they are fresh and local and delicious.”
Swarns went on to reference other statements from Mrs. Obama using the "she said" construct, implying to readers that these quotes were as fresh as the food now served in the White House.
The secret to that creamless creamed spinach? Sautéed spinach, olive oil and shallots are whipped into a purée that is light and delicious, according to Cristeta Comerford, the White House executive chef.Even so, Mrs. Obama conceded, the dish was not a hit with Sasha. No matter what you do, she said ruefully, “sometimes kids are like, ‘It’s green!’ ”
She marveled at the healthy salads and the broccoli cream soup that had no cream, but admitted that her daughter Sasha did not go for it: “To kids,” she said, “it’s green and it’s horrible.”
What makes Swarn's lack of attribution especially problematic is the fact that at some points in her piece, she makes specific reference to when Mrs. Obama's quotes come from other sources.
For example, at one point Swarns mentions an article in the November issue of Parents Magazine in which the Obamas discussed their disdain for processed foods. This is how Swarns handled a quote from that article:
“A couple of years ago — you’d never know it by looking at her now — Malia was getting a little chubby,” Mr. Obama told the magazine.
Given that attribution, the reader of today's piece could understandably -- and wrongly -- assume that unattributed quotes from Mrs. Obama came from an interview.
But in fact, yet more quotes and information came directly from the media event reported on in the Burros piece. Consider this:
Mrs. Obama also enjoys waffles and grits for breakfast, though not every day. And she said that the White House chefs, who can make nutritious meals tasty, have other talents as well.
“They can also make a mean batch of French fries when you want it done,” she said.Burros, 2/23/09:
Mrs. Obama praised the kitchen staff, emphasizing their creativity and flexibility. They can put out a “mean batch of French fries,” she said, as well as creamed spinach made without cream. And she said staff members took the suggestions that she, her mother and her social secretary, Desirée Rogers, offered after a tasting for the dinner and “made sense of all our kooky ideas.”
When asked by one of the students what her favorite dishes were, Mrs. Obama said she liked them all, singling out “some mean waffles and grits that have become a regular staple for some of us” but adding that she did not eat this every day.
But the problem here is not how Swarns found the quotes, but instead how she presented them to readers.
Given that Marian Burros (and plenty of other journalists) had already made liberal use of Mrs. Obama's comments about food at the time of her kitchen tour, it seems inappropriate of Swarns to take up so much room in her story today with the regurgitation of those comments -- and without noting, anywhere in her story, that Mrs. Obama did not give her an interview.
Instead, Swarns went ahead with a piece that said nothing new, except to underscore the message that Mrs. Obama had eloquently presented three weeks earlier. Mrs. Obama must have realized there was no real benefit to giving an interview to Swarns -- certainly not just to repeat what she'd already said.