Media Bites on ‘Turkey’ of a Story

By: E&P Staff

Gerry Thomas — the self-touted inventor of the TV dinner who passed away recently — wove an impressively detailed story of being a salesman for C.A. Swanson & Sons in 1951, when the company was faced with the problem of figuring out what to do with a turkey surplus, Roy Rivenburg recounted in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.

Because of unusually warm weather, turkey sales were down, leaving 520,000 pounds of unsold poultry, the tale went. That’s when Thomas suggested making the excess birds into TV dinners, a name he claimed to have coined.

In 2003, however, The Los Angeles Times found holes in Thomas’ story and questioned him about it. He said that the turkey story was?a bit of a turkey, meant to be merely a ?metaphor.?

Many newspaper obituary writers in late-July neglected to mention that. E&P wanted to see who reported the tall-tale as truth. Our discoveries include:

* The Contra Costa Times (Calif.) ran with the story, adding details. The Charlotte Observer clarified that there is debate surrounding the invention of the TV dinner, but did not hesitate to entertain the idea of the 520,000 pounds of unsold birds. The paper also reported that the company coined the term ?TV dinner? — a discrepancy from the many reports that credit Thomas with the invention of the name.

The paper also said that Thomas was immortalized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame with his handprints next to a tray print. This too, is completely untrue. Nevertheless, newspapers including The Washington Post, the Philadelphia Daily News, the San Jose Mercury News, the Fort Wayne News Sentinel (Ind.) and the Contra Costa Times also reported that angle. The Arizona Republic made it the deck of its obituary.

The Philadelphia Daily News, the Fort Wayne News Sentinel (Ind.) and the San Jose Mercury News printed an article by a Washington Post writer who also reported Thomas’ ?metaphorical? turkey story.

In a letter to the Romenesko site at Poynter.org, Rivenburg wrote that as of 12:20 PM on August 1, no newspapers or news services had issued retractions.

The Chicago Tribune published Rivenburg’s story, even though on July 20 and 22, it included stories that told the ever-popular turkey surplus tale.

Debate has also swirled around Thomas’ involvement with the invention of the TV dinner. W.L. Maxson Co. created the first frozen dinner in 1944, which it sold to the Navy and airlines. FrigiDinner invented the first aluminum tray for frozen meals in 1947, although The Washington Post reported that Thomas’s version is in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Perhaps most importantly, several people who worked with Thomas at Swanson maintain he had little or nothing to do with the creation of frozen dinners.

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