W. Joseph Campbell

Ignoring WaPo role in pushing Lynch hero-warrior tale

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on October 13, 2010 at 8:12 am

It’s more than a mildly astonishing how the Washington Post‘s singular role in propelling the erroneous hero-warrior tale about Private Jessica Lynch is rarely noted when the case is recalled these days.

The dominant narrative about the Lynch case–one of 10  media-driven myths I examine in my new book, Getting It Wrong–has shifted decidedly away from the Post to focus on the Pentagon‘s purported role in concocting the story about Lynch’s battlefield heroics in Iraq.

London’s Daily Telegraph was the latest to buy into that misleading narrative, stating in an article posted online yesterday:

“The Pentagon was … accused of exaggerating the heroism of Private Jessica Lynch, who was rescued from an Iraqi prisoner of war hospital in 2003 after being captured and injured in an ambush.

“Government sources claimed she had tried to fight off her captors, but she later said her gun had jammed before she could fire a shot.”

It’s scarcely surprising that the Telegraph account makes no mention of the Post and its sensational, front-page report of April 3, 2003–the report that thrust Lynch into unwitting and undeserved international fame.

Lynch then was a 19-year-old Army private, a supply clerk with the 507th Maintenance Company. Elements of her unit were ambushed in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, on March 23, 2003, a few days into the war.

The Post‘s article of April 3 appeared beneath the headline: “‘She was fighting to the death.’” And it described how Lynch had fought fiercely in an ambush in southern Iraq in the early days of the Iraq War, that she had been shot and stabbed before taken prisoner.

But the story wasn’t true.

Lynch never fired her weapon in Iraq. Her gun jammed during the ambush, she later said. She was neither shot nor stabbed; she suffered serious injuries in the crash of a Humvee as it tried to flee. And she was sexually assaulted after the ambush.

Lynch lingered near death at a hospital in Nasiriyah before a U.S. special forces team rescued her, on April 1, 2003, two days before the Post‘s botched hero-warrior tale was published–and was promptly picked up by news organizations around the world.

The Post account vaguely cited “U.S. officials” as sources for the tale about Lynch’s derring-do.

But who those sources were has never been revealed.

As I mention in Getting It Wrong, Vernon Loeb, who shared a byline on the “fighting to the death” report about Lynch, made clear the Pentagon was not the source.

Speaking in what I called “a little-noted interview” on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air interview program in late 2003, Loeb said flatly :

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.

“And, in fact, I could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about those reports [about Lynch’s battlefield heroics] at all. I got indications that they had, in fact, received those intelligence reports, but the Pentagon was completely unwilling to comment on those reports at all. They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

Loeb said in the interview that the Post had been “told by some really good intelligence sources here in Washington that, you know, there were indications that she had, you know, fired back and resisted her capture and actually been shot and possibly stabbed doing so.”

He added that the Post on April 3, 2003, “basically told our readers that day what the U.S. intelligence community was telling senior members of the U.S. government.”

Loeb, then the Post defense correspondent, dismissed the interviewer’s suggestion that the  “fighting to the death” report was the upshot of clever manipulation by the Pentagon.

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none,” Loeb said. “I mean …they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

Why the Post escapes responsibility for the botched hero-warrior tale is intriguing, if not baffling.

It certainly makes for juicy story to claim the Pentagon for ginned up the tale about Lynch’s heroics. That story line fits well with the public’s curdled view of the war in Iraq: A bogus hero seems appropriate for a war fought on a supposedly dubious premise.

But that story line is deceptive: The bogus hero-warrior tale was a direct consequence of the bungled, credulous, and inadequately sourced reporting by the Washington Post.


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