Tales of a serial prankster: Interviewing the U.S. president while wearing a chicken head

Among the 58 photographs posted to Flickr from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum is a mugshot of a chicken. Actually, it’s the bright yellow beak and blue-hooded eyes of a chicken suit, the most famous chicken suit in the history of American journalism.

Jim Naughton surprised by the arrival of The Chicken at a 1996 Poynter lunch.

Jim Naughton recounts the story of the chicken in his self-published memoir, “46 Frogs: Tales of a Serial Prankster.” In a chapter entitled “The Pullet Surprise,” the retired Poynter president returns us to the 1976 presidential campaign, when a press corps he describes as “weary and sullen and goofy” is following President Ford across the country.

Naughton filled one of the most important seats on the press plane, the one paid for by the nation’s newspaper of record, The New York Times. He writes:

“I never meant to become an infamous chicken, certainly not in public. The thing about campaign pranks is that they are inside jokes, private relief from the mid-zapping routine of political journalism. You go whipping across time zones in 20-hour days, listening to a candidate endlessly shout things like ‘Give me your mandate!’ and it induces a kind of mass hysteria among those who are paid, handsomely, thank God, to listen and watch without surcease. Especially for those at major news outlets like the broadcast networks and the Washington Post and New York Times, there was an expectation we would come up with something new every day, even if Jerry Ford was doing the same thing every day. Some reporters could manage this debilitating duty; others turned to booze, some to sex, some to gourmandizing, some to late-night poker games. Some of us turned to pranks …

“I had only myself to blame for the public nature of the pullet surprise. It began outside San Diego, on Sunday, October 24, 1976, at the Grossmont shopping mall …

“By the time the President made it to the shopping mall, the whole White House press corps was giddy with exhaustion. Every notable Republican in southern California already had addressed a crowd of about 9,000 from a lectern atop a flatbed truck in the mall parking lot. The emcee had introduced such notables as … movie star Zsa Zsa Gabor; the Serendipity Singers pop music group; someone in a clown costume and another dressed as a Russian spy chicken. The chicken was actually Ted Giannoulas, a young man beginning a career for radio station KGB cavorting on the sidelines of every sporting event in town with the call letters emblazoned on his feathered costume …

“When Ford rose to address the crowd he began by thanking every single one of the people who’d preceded him. Ford, too, was tired and subject to those little lapses that sometimes were memorialized as pratfalls on Saturday Night Live. He called Ms. Gabor ‘Zah Zah.’ The press corps tittered …

“The giggles may have rattled Ford, who then said thanks to ‘those super singers, Serebinity.’ The press corps guffawed … The President looked, wide-eyed, all around him and spotted one person in particular on the flatbed truck. ‘And the chicken!’ he proclaimed. ‘I love it!’

“Immediately, the KGB chicken rose from its folding chair, sashayed across the flatbed truck and embraced the President of the United States. I stood in slack-jawed awe and said, mostly to myself but aloud, ‘I’ve got to have that chicken head.’

Naughton, in his infamous chicken suit, talking with President Ford.

[Cut to the roped-off press area outside Air Force One, where a press conference was under way the next day. Naughton had indeed gotten his hands on that chicken head…]

“Dick Cheney, the White House chief of staff, said I should move up front ‘or you’re a chicken.’ ”

“…The next morning on the Today show and the CBS Morning News, viewers would be treated to the spectacle captured by video cameras: the President of the Free World facing a sober-seeming group of questioners as in their midst slowly rose a giant chicken, identified as a reporter for The New York Times.”

***

Last time I looked, not many descriptions for journalism jobs include such roles as ringleader, instigator, entertainer or prankster. Naughton’s success as a reporter, editor, newsroom boss and journalism educator suggests why they should.

The main imperative of journalism — finding out stuff that would otherwise remain unspoken or concealed — is rarely achieved by practitioners of business as usual.

More often, extraordinary journalism is accomplished by enterprising women and men skilled at loosening that which is tightly held. Often, they go to extremes.

Some journalists do this by immersing themselves in public records at a depth the rest of us would find smothering — but they find revealing. Others place themselves in dangerous or uncomfortable situations that they consider to be exhilarating. Others, like Naughton, loosen things up by having such a good time the rest of us want in on the fun.

Naughton’s repertoire at Poynter included a collection of hats the rest of us were invited to deploy as we weighed heady journalistic issues.

Naughton’s influence has spread. Shortly after Milwaukee Journal editor Marty Kaiser got heat for showing up in the newsroom in a costume a couple of years ago, he said he took moral support from Naughton’s chicken escapade. The next year he took his costume to the streets.

Nobody’s suggesting journalism is just a barrel of laughs.

And it’s not to suggest that anything goes in the course of having a good time. Naughton is more of a stickler than most when it comes to ethics guidelines aimed at strengthening the credibility and independence of journalism.

But what, exactly, does it take to set this sort of tone in the newsroom?

As Naughton made the transition from reporter to editor, he recalls imagining how he might lead in ways that he liked to be led. He wanted to be the kind of boss who would make extraordinary journalism a bi-product of journalists having fun.

Becoming such a leader — as a reporter or in some other role — doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go beak-to-chin with the president of the United States. Especially with journalism facing such intense need for reinvention, though, it may very well mean keeping a chicken suit on hand. Just in case.

President Gerald Ford and Dick Cheney share thoughts on Jim Naughton from Poynter Institute on Vimeo.

This is one of four chapters that Poynter faculty have highlighted to recognize “46 Frogs: Tales of a Serial Prankster,” a new memoir by former Poynter president Jim Naughton. The self-published book highlights the pranks Naughton pulled in newsrooms throughout the years and speaks to the need that we all have for laughter in the workplace.

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