Another Thanksgiving has come and gone, and if you’re anything like the average American, you’re still sleeping off the eggnog and tryptophan, sorting through your Black Friday loot, and cursing that evil George W. Bush for force-feeding plastic turkey to our troops ten years ago. At least, that’s what conservative media outlets like Newsbusters and The Washington Times would have you believe, as thy set out to debunk the scandal you never knew you cared about.
If you remember George W. Bush‘s surprise 2003 visit to the troops in Iraq, you probably remember thinking one of three things; for the politically unengaged, it was probably a nice gesture, a thrill for the troops, and changed little about how you felt about the war. For those opposed to the war, it was an empty gesture, hollowed out by the misery and loss of life to a war that Americans were misled into. If you were in favor of the war, it was John Wayne painted by Norman Rockwell, heroic and sentimental as all get out. The more time passes, the less these views matter, and the more the moment becomes a sour Proustian reminder of a dark time for this country.
Stephen Dinan of The Washington Times wrote a fascinating anniversary piece on how ten years ago, many reporters and activists were obsessed by “Turkeygate.” Anti-Bush reporters wondered “Was that a fake turkey President George W. Bush was photographed with during his first surprise visit with troops in Iraq?”
They wanted to blunt any good publicity Bush might get from this visit. The turkey was a real, roasted bird, meant for decoration on the chow line. But the phony scandal began with then-Washington Post reporter Mike Allen and then-CNN anchor Aaron Brown
If you don’t remember this being a big deal, you’re not crazy. I was vaguely aware of the photo, and while it did reinforce the impression I already had of President Bush as someone with a superficial grasp of the human consequences of war, I never suspected the bird was fake. I remember some liberal cracking that it wasn’t turkey, it was chickenhawk (I would have gone with “chickenhawducken”), but that’s it. In fact, The Washington Times‘ Stephen Dinan begins his complaining with two people who reported the story with complete accuracy:
A week after the visit, Mike Allen, a reporter who was then with the Washington Post and who was the “pool” reporter on the Iraq trip for the consortium of newspapers that covers the president, penned a story reporting that the bird was a centerpiece decoration, and was never served to the troops. Instead, Mr. Allen said, the “roasted and primped” turkey was meant to adorn the serving line.
…CNN hosted Mr. Allen for an interview, with anchor Aaron Brown pondering whether the episode constituted “Turkey-gate.” Mr. Allen told Mr. Brown he “first got suspicious of the turkey when I saw it blown up in one of the news magazines and it was so perfect. I was thinking this is a country club turkey not a chow hall turkey.” Prompted by his editor, Mr. Allen discovered the bird was a decoration, and said that led to the story looking at the way the White House was using imagery to promote its policies, which he said was the point of the story.
Okay, that’s stretching a lot of meal out of a little bit of story, but the artifice they identified was real, as was their reporting on the turkey. What’s the problem? According to Tim Blair, a columnist at The Daily Telegraph in Australia who “has tracked the story over the past decade,” this:
Except other reporters focused on the questions about the turkey — and apparently missed Mr. Allen’s reporting that it was a real, roasted bird.
Soon, a flood of reports called the turkey “fake” and “plastic.”
Mr. Blair found more than 70 instances of people getting the story wrong in the first three years after the incident.
You could argue that the bird was, in fact, “fake,” in that it was not being served to the troops, and probably wasn’t at a safe temperature for storage or consumption. If you google news reports from the time period, they all make the distinction that the bird was a real turkey, intended for decoration only. As you can see, plastic or not, the narrative was the same.
What’s really weird, though, is that Newsbusters’ parent organization, the Media Research Center, didn’t notice anyone calling it a plastic bird at the time either, and instead ridiculed the idea that anyone could have thought the turkey was meant to be eaten:
(I don’t know about you, but I realized the turkey was a display item the second I saw Bush holding it on TV last week with the turkey surrounded by perfectly arranged grapes. And later when Bush helped distribute food, he did so from behind a counter with steam trays, so it’s not as if he somehow tried to pretend he was serving turkey from that tray to soldiers.)
MRC also helpfully detailed all the ways in which the media clearly explained that the turkey was “real,” but not meant to be eaten. Dinan never really explains how that 100% accurate version of events undercuts the narrative that he, himself, agrees it supports:
Indeed, there were growing questions — which would eventually turn into firm conclusions — that the intelligence that led the country into war had been inaccurate.
The turkey report became a surrogate for all of that, and for a growing sense among reporters that the administration was stage-managing the news to try to put the best face possible on Iraq.
Still, if someone, somewhere, ever said that turkey was “plastic,” that is an injustice. On behalf of all of them, I deeply apologize. Maybe now, Newsbusters‘ Tim Graham and The Washington Times‘ Stephen Dinan can finally know peace, and leave their grief and pain on that grape-strewn platter. That decorative turkey, like so many of its brothers and sisters, is in a better place now.
[photo via Anja Niedringhaus, AP White House pool]
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