Washington Times: Ten Years Later, Few Regret Spreading Phony Bush 'Turkeygate' Scandal from Iraq Visit

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:

In the years since, the bogus “fake turkey” story keeps churning, including slipping into 2004 New York Times and Boston Globe articles, making it into talk radio shows in 2005 and popping up in Washington Post and London Telegraph stories in 2006. To this day, it still creeps into print in letters to the editor in newspapers around the country.

“It’s a real theme in so many people’s minds, it’s almost got a religious aspect to it,” said Tim Blair, a columnist at The Daily Telegraph in Australia who has tracked the story over the past decade and said it has taken on a life of its own, playing on people’s perceptions of the former president. “If you’re of the anti-Bush faith, it’s a touchstone. It’s the book of turkey...”

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.

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.”

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.

Mr. Blair found more than 70 instances of people getting the story wrong in the first three years after the incident. The list ranges from bloggers to major journalistic figures, and also includes John F. Kerry, Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, all vying to be Mr. Bush’s opponent in the 2004 election; Al Franken, a comedian who would go on to win a seat in the U.S. Senate; and filmmaker Michael Moore. In each case, the argument was the same: Mr. Bush was as fake as the turkey.

In the years since, Tim Blair hasn't found the media myth-spreaders to be responsive to his questions.


One reporter on the error list is Howard Kurtz, who as The Washington Post's media critic in 2006 wrote a story about a Bush visit to Afghanistan, saying it went off better than the 2003 Iraq visit and the "fake turkey." Now at Fox News, Mr. Kurtz didn't reply to an e-mail seeking comment Wednesday.

Mr. Brown now teaches journalism at Arizona State University. Reached by e-mail, he said he didn't remember much of the turkey coverage.

"What would surprise me is if I thought of it especially seriously. I think in the TV era I expect successful political operations (and the Bush WH was that) to use TV effectively which is not the same as absolute truthfully," he said.

Kurtz also interviewed Allen (and Newsweek’s Daniel Klaidman) on CNN on “Reliable Sources” on November 30, 2003. He was all about casting a pall over Bush’s propaganda attempt:

"Should the White House be in the position of misleading the press about this sort of thing? I mean, it was great for the President to go over there and rally the morale of the troops, but they put out a false story....In retrospect, was the press used here for an elaborate two-hour turkey-filled presidential photo-op?...Well, I should point out, though, that watching all the cable networks on Thursday, the coverage ranged from upbeat to gushing....It sounded like he landed on the moon instead of in Baghdad."

A look at other quotes in our Notable Quotables at the time doesn’t exactly demonstrate “gushing” coverage on the broadcast networks.

"Because he did not attend any of the funerals of the fallen soldiers in Iraq, some family members felt he was not showing compassion, or a connection to the suffering that they have felt as a result of this war. Was this trip an effort to blunt that criticism?"
-- NBC's Matt Lauer to Rice on Today, November 28.

"The President said during his remarks to the troops, he said: 'You're defeating terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to face them in our own country.' Now, there's no connection between Iraq and 9/11. Why does the President persist in tying those two together?"
-- CBS's Harry Smith to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on the November 28 Early Show.

"There's obviously great symbolism to this trip, because it is important for a Commander-in-Chief to come and see his troops. But so is there symbolism in that things are so unstable that he had to sneak in, in darkness, that he never left the airport, that he could only stay two and a half hours?...Isn't there symbolism in the fact that it points up that not much has changed in eight months?"
-- ABC's Charles Gibson asking Condoleezza Rice about President Bush's Thanksgiving Day trip to Iraq, on the November 28 Good Morning America.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis