W. Joseph Campbell

WaPo’s belated and puzzling Lynch correction

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on October 20, 2010 at 7:54 am

Private Lynch

Nearly seven weeks after I brought up the matter in a post at Media Myth Alert, the Washington Post yesterday published this odd correction about its misleading characterization of the Jessica Lynch case:

“A Sept. 3 Style review of the documentary ‘The Tillman Story,’ which included a reference to the 2003 rescue in Iraq of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, should not have attributed to the Pentagon the early reports of Lynch’s supposed actions before her capture. Sources of those accounts, which appeared in The Washington Post, were never named.”

The correction is confusing, and awkwardly worded (“should not have attributed to the Pentagon the early reports of Lynch’s supposed actions before her capture” is absolutely headache-inducing).

The correction is puzzling, too, in that is so belated. (Supposedly, it’s policy at the Post to correct errors promptly. “But too often,” the newspaper’s ombudsman noted late last year, “reporters and editors move at a snail’s pace to correct errors.”)

The Lynch correction also is puzzling in what it’s supposed to tell the reader. Just what are readers to take away from reading such a flabby statement is not at all clear.

In publishing the correction, the Post was addressing this passage in its review of the Tillman film:

“In a surreal coincidence [Pat] Tillman’s first Army tour was in Iraq, where he helped provide perimeter support for the stage-managed rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch. Lynch later debunked the Pentagon’s account of her own actions before being captured by Iraqi forces, accusing the military of using her in their propaganda efforts.” (Emphasis added.)

What the correction should have made clear was that the review erred in calling Lynch’s rescue “stage-managed” and in blaming the Pentagon for a botched story that the Post–alone–thrust into the public domain.

It did so on its front page of April 3, 2003, in an electrifying account that quoted “U.S. officials” as saying Lynch had been shot and stabbed but nonetheless “was fighting to the death” until she was subdued and taken prisoner during an ambush in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq.

The hero-warrior tale was sensational and, as I note in my new book, Getting It Wrong, was picked up by news organizations around the world. The Times of London, for example, declared that “one thing is certain”–Lynch “has won a place in history as a gritty, all-American hero.”

Lynch, as it turned out, was no hero. She was a 19-year-old supply clerk with the 507th Maintenance Company, elements of which were ambushed on March 23, 2003, a few days after the war began.

As the Post only belatedly reported–in a rollback in June 2003 that one media critic called “the journalistic equivalent of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow”–Lynch never fired a shot during the ambush. Her gun had jammed, she later said. She was neither shot nor stabbed; she suffered shattering injuries in the crash of a Humvee as it tried to flee the attack.

Lynch was knocked out in the crash, and lingered near death in an Iraqi hospital until she was rescued April 1, 2003, by a U.S. special forces team. The bogus “fighting to the death” report appeared in the Post two days later.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, one of the reporters who wrote the “fighting to the death” story “made clear in late 2003 that the Post‘s sources were not Pentagon officials.”

The reporter, Vernon Loeb, said on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air interview program:

“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.”

Loeb dismissed at 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.”

More than seven years on, it’s time for the Post to resolve this lingering mess; it’s time to identify just who were its sources, who were the “U.S. officials” to whom it referred in reporting the botched hero-warrior tale about Jessica Lynch.

There’s no good reason to continue to guard the anonymity of sources who misled the newspaper, its readers, and media audiences around the world.

Anonymity ought not to be a cloak when error and deception persist. Identifying those sources, whoever they were, can help correct the erroneous dominant narrative that the Pentagon concocted the tale.

It’s time  for the Post to say who they were.


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