Culture Schlock – By Darren Garnick
“Toy collector exposes action figure hostage hoax in Iraq”
The Telegraph — February 10, 2005
Newspaper journalists loftily think of themselves as “writing the first draft of history.” When the definitive stories of the Iraq war are written decades from now, they hopefully will include at least one paragraph on the persistence of toy collector Brady Miller, a military analyst the mainstream media has largely ignored.
Miller’s expertise is in action figures, perhaps the reason why the Associated Press didn’t immediately take him seriously when he called their national desk last week with vital information on a breaking news story from the Middle East. The name of his business, “Monkey Depot,” likely didn’t enhance his credibility as a source.
Based in Mesa, Ariz., the Depot sells the highly evolved descendants of G.I. Joe – meticulously detailed 12-inch plastic soldiers who come with dozens of variations of uniforms, weaponry and other equipment. Miller, who jokingly refers to himself as a “worldwide arms peddler,” specializes in loose parts: offering helmets, boots, berets, gas masks, night vision goggles, belts, binoculars, MREs, propaganda leaflets, grenade launchers and every firearm imaginable in miniature. His business model was inspired by frustrating experiences as a collector, not wishing to pay $45 for a high-end figure if all he needed was an extra machine gun or flak jacket.
Last Wednesday, while looking up a price on his computer for a customer, Miller stumbled across a breaking AP story on the Yahoo! News site. Iraqi terrorists claimed they had kidnapped a U.S. soldier and posted a grainy photo of the bound American with a gun pointed at his head.
“Even from the thumbnail image, I knew something was wrong,” recalls Miller, finding it odd that the hostage was still wearing his military-issued knee pads. “I clicked on the photo for a close-up right away and after I saw the gun, my gut feeling was absolute. I stare at these things 12-14 hours a day.”
Miller was the first to discover the hoax that the kidnapped soldier was actually a special edition action figure named Cody, which was sold only on U.S. bases in Kuwait. He frantically tried calling several different bureaus of the Associated Press, each time getting referred to their automated reader comment line. “If someone would just take two seconds to look at this, they’d realize this is an action figure and not a real guy,” he told the gatekeepers. Finally, a skeptical photo editor in New York listened and agreed to look at photos of the action figure for comparison.
“Thanks for the great info and images,” the editor fired back in an email. “You have the largest newsgathering organization on the planet at a standstill!”
After confirming the photographs with the manufacturer, Dragon Models USA, the AP ran with the action figure hoax story that instantly became incredulous conversation fodder at water coolers around the world. On his popular news satire Web site, comedian Andy Borowitz later reported that the most recent Osama bin Laden tape was actually the voice of Hokey Pokey Elmo.
“Of course America should be outraged at the atrocities of kidnappings, both real and staged,” says toy publicist Lauri Aibel, a longtime observer of the military action figure industry. “But it seems the terrorists tangled with the wrong market. Hobbyists combed their memories and then their ample collections to quickly unveil the identity of the un-named GI and to them it was as obvious as if they had just seen a scale-size gun pointed at Malibu Barbie.”
Liam Cusak, a spokesman for Dragon Models USA, says he’s “stunned” by last week’s bizarre intersection between the military action figure world and the real world. He notes that the fact someone would confuse a Dragon figure with a real soldier for even a moment is “a great compliment,” but quickly adds: “Of course, we don’t condone anybody pulling these sort of hoaxes just to get attention.”
Speaking of attention, Miller is getting very little of it. Internet journalist Matt Drudge is now widely credited for exposing this hoax first, even though his photographs were the same ones from MonkeyDepot.com. On top of that, outside of Miller’s hometown paper, all of the major news coverage neglects to even mention him. He also has no plans to brag about his journalistic coup on his Web site, explaining, “I don’t want to try to sensationalize this or even give the appearance of sensationalizing it.”
“I hate to say this,” adds Miller, “but I have to begrudgingly – very begrudgingly – give them (the hoaxsters) credit for the idea. For $44.95 and a little Internet bandwith, they were able to make the troops a little nervous. In this conflict, propaganda and using the media is a key part of the battle.”
Theories abound as to who is behind the hoax – one analyst speculated that this stunt was designed to undermine the credibility of terrorist Web sites – but there is a glimmer of positive news if this was from the usual gang of headchopping thugs. Trying to fake a soldier kidnapping means that it is extremely tough to abduct real ones.
If an action figure fanatic recognized problems with the kidnapping photo, chances are the U.S. military wouldn’t have been fooled either. Nonetheless, it was the toy collector and not the Army who embarrassed the 24/7 press for its report-first, run-a-correction-later mentality. Every minute longer that the hoax remained unexposed was another minute of needless worrying for U.S. military families.
“This whole experience has been a freakish thing,” says Miller. “But I’m glad this story got squashed when it did.”
Darren Garnick’s “Culture Schlock” column runs every Thursday in Encore. Reader feedback is welcome via email at cultureschlock (at) gmail.com
OTHER WAR TOY STORIES WORTH PERUSING…
Squeezing Saddam Hussein’s Noose Into Lemonade: A gallows humor action figure.
Kentucky Toy Surgeon Rescues G.I. Joes on Their Deathbeds: Meet the guy who knows what to do about action figure balding and joint deterioration!
Pink Aisle Refugees: Guys who shop for (and train) Barbie commandos — Do her accessories include rocket-propelled grenades?
Coming to a Gumball Machine Near You: Classism! Trailer park figurines come with kegs and unemployment checks.