W. Joseph Campbell

Gleanings from the conference

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on March 14, 2010 at 6:41 pm

My paper about the media myths surrounding the case of Jessica Lynch, the Army private whom the Washington Post lifted from obscurity early in the Iraq War, stirred a fair amount of comment and questions at yesterday’s conference of journalism historians in New York.

That’s hardly surprising given that the paper—which is drawn from a chapter in Getting It Wrong,  my forthcoming book about media-driven myths—challenges the dominant narrative about the Lynch case that the Pentagon supposedly made up the account of her supposed heroics on the battlefield.

Her heroics were reported on the Post‘s front page April 3, 2003.

The newspaper said Lynch, then 19, had “fought fiercely” in the ambush of her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, in Nasiriyah in southeastern Iraq. The Post article cited unnamed “U.S. officials” in reporting that Lynch had “shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed” her unit, “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition.”

One official was quoted anonymously as saying: “‘She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.’” Lynch was taken prisoner and nine days later rescued from an Iraqi hospital by a U.S. Special Operations team.

The Post’s story about Lynch’s derring-do was electrifying–and picked up by news organizations around the world.

It soon proved to be almost entirely in error.

Lynch hadn’t “fought fiercely.” She had never fired her weapon.

She suffered shattering injuries in the crash of a Humvee as she and others in the 507th fled the ambush.

Soon enough, though, the dominant narrative about the Lynch saga took shape: The Pentagon had concocted the hero-warrior story in order to boost support back home.

But as I noted during my presentation yesterday, Vernon Loeb, one of the Post reporters who shared a byline on the “Fighting to the Death” story said late in 2003 that the Pentagon was not the source for that report.

I also noted that the Pentagon hardly would have been desperate to boost morale back home: Just before Lynch’s rescue, support for the Iraq War was topping 70 percent, according to opinion polls in the United States.

One of the questions raised at the conference yesterday was: If the military wasn’t the source, then who gave the Post the story?

It’s a fair question, and I noted that Loeb and other reporters on the story have never disclosed their sources, beyond citing the otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials.” I also pointed out that they had reported the hero-warrior story about Lynch from Washington, and that no journalists were with Lynch and her unit during the ambush in Iraq.

Not surprisingly, the crucial element of mistaken identity in the Lynch saga stirred little comment from yesterday’s audience.

The hoopla stirred by the Post‘s story about Lynch had the effect of obscuring the recognition of a real hero of the ambush. He was Sergeant Donald Walters, a cook in the 507th who did fight to the death at Nasiriyah.

As his unit tried to flee the ambush, Walters stayed behind, laying down covering fire. When his ammunition ran out, Walters was captured and, shortly afterward, executed.

But when they became known, Walters’ actions on the battlefield attracted scant interest among the American news media.

The daylong conference was sponsored by the History Division of AEJMC and the American Journalism Historians Association. AEJMC is the acronym for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.


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