Fact checkers pop Paul Ryan’s brown paper bag

I’ll let Charles Pierce at Esquire provide the lede, as only he can:

EddieMunsterPaul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny starver from Wisconsin, and First Runner-up in our most recent Vice Presidential Pageant, has left a trail of cheap tricks behind him here. In his speech yesterday, Ryan told a charming story, which he said he’d heard from an aide to Scott Walker, the goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to manage their midwest subsidiary formerly known as the state of Wisconsin. It was about a little boy who turned down a free school lunch because he wanted one in a paper bag because that, according to Paul Ryan and his brimming big baby blues, would mean that someone cared for him.

She once met a young boy from a very poor family, and every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program,” Ryan said. “He told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids,” he continued. “He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him. This is what the left does not understand.”

Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s fact checker, examined Ryan’s tale and awarded him “four Pinnochios” (highest rating for FALSE). A story too good to check: Paul Ryan and the tale of the brown paper bag:

[O]ne would think the anecdote, described by the National Review as “moving,” would be rock-solid. But the story seemed a bit pat.

Did Eloise Anderson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, ever meet such a child?

The first thing we did was look for Eloise Anderson and stories about brown paper bags. We discovered a congressional hearing, held on July 31, 2013, and chaired by Ryan, that focused on the War on Poverty. Ryan asked Anderson, who appeared as an expert witness, what should be done to make the food stamp program, also known as SNAP, work better.

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Okay, so Anderson had testified about this boy, and claimed that she had spoken to him and realized that welfare programs were draining any sense of responsibility. As she put it, “If this kid tells me a brown bag was more important than a free lunch, we’ve missed the whole notion of parents being there for their children because we’ve taken over that responsibility.”

But the story doesn’t end there. Wonkette, a satiric blog, wondered if Anderson’s story was actually derived from a 2011 book titled “The Invisible Thread,” by Laura Schroff, which is about a busy executive and her relationship with an 11-year-old homeless panhandler named Maurice Mazyck. His mother was a drug addict, in jail, who had stolen things and cashed in food stamps to pay for drugs. At one point, Schroff offers to bring Mazyck lunch every day so he won’t go hungry.

[ Kessler notes the story closely parallels an exchange from the book  “An Invisible Thread,” in which an executive offers to either give a young, homeless panhandler money to eat for the week or else make lunch for him each day. The boy insists on having his lunch made for him in a brown-paper bag, because that means “somebody cares” about him.]

This actually seemed a little strange. Could the tale told in congressional testimony really be drawn from a book? It did not make much sense in part because Schroff and Mazyck are partnering with a group called No Kid Hungry to help end childhood hunger in the United States. One key part of the program is connecting hungry kids with federal programs such as school lunches and food stamps. The group also opposed Ryan’s 2013 budget for its proposed reductions in the food stamp program.

So we asked Anderson when she met this boy and heard his story. Joe Scialfa, communications director for the department provided us with this answer:

In the course of giving live testimony, Secretary Anderson misspoke.  What she had intended to say was the following:

“Once I heard someone say, ‘what was important to him as a boy was that he didn’t want school lunch, he wanted a brown bag because the brown bag that he brought with his lunch in it meant that his mom cared about him.’”

Secretary Anderson was referring to a television interview which she had seen with Maurice Mazyck.

It’s important to note that there is no discussion in the book about the school lunch program, and we could find no interview with Mazyck in which he said that. He simply repeats the story as told in the book, without any larger political context about federal programs to help hungry children. Moreover, this incident happened more than 25 years ago; Mazyck is no longer a boy but in his late 30s.

Kevin Seifert, a spokesman for Ryan, said: “It’s unfortunate to learn that while testifying before the House Budget Committee, Secretary Anderson misspoke, but we appreciate her taking the time to share her insights.” After our inquiry, Ryan posted a notice on Facebook saying, “I regret failing to verify the original source of the story.”

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Anderson, in congressional testimony, represented that she spoke to this child — and then ripped the tale out of its original context. That’s certainly worthy of Four Pinocchios.

But what about Ryan? Should he get a pass because he heard this from a witness before Congress? It really depends on the circumstances. In this case, he referenced the story in a major speech. The burden always falls on the speaker, and we believe politicians need to check the facts in any prepared remarks.

In this case, apparently, the story was too good to check. We appreciate he is regretful now. But a simple inquiry would have determined that the person telling the story actually is an advocate for the federal programs that Ryan now claims leave people with “a full stomach and an empty soul.” So he also earns Four Pinocchios.

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Catherine Thompson at Talking Points Memo adds:

The author of “An Invisible Thread,” Laurie Schroff, spoke with the Huffington Post about Ryan’s CPAC remarks and the origins of Anderson’s anecdote. She asserted that her book was not “political” and disagreed with Ryan’s “full stomach and an empty soul” comment.

“I want people to think about what they can do to make the world a kinder world,” Schroff said. “I don’t care about Republicans and Democrats. But we are talking about children that need to be fed. Cutting school lunch programs doesn’t accomplish that.”

This is what happens when anecdotal stories get told and retold in the conservative media entertainment complex. They are stripped of all context, substance and meaning for purely propaganda purposes.

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