W. Joseph Campbell

False parallels: bin Laden slaying and bogus tale about Jessica Lynch

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on May 5, 2011 at 8:00 am

Lynch: No hero-warrior

The discrepancies and shifting details about the takedown of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden have reminded some commentators of the case of Jessica Lynch and the bogus tale of her battlefield heroics in the Iraq War.

Among those invoking such parallels was Ben Smith who, at a Politico blog the other day, examined the erroneous report that bin Laden used his wife as a human shield before being fatally shot during the U.S. commando raid on his lair in Pakistan.

“Every American war has been defined, in no small part, by mythmaking,” Smith wrote. “It was at its most egregious in the cases of Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, when the military establishment seemed, more or less, to have fed the press lies.”

The Guardian newspaper in London also brought up the Lynch case, in an article posted yesterday that carried the headline, “US military’s history of backtracking on initial reports.”

The Guardian said of Lynch: “Despite being badly wounded when her company came under attack near the town of Nasiriyah in March [2003], the soldier kept her finger on the trigger of her gun until her ammunition ran out. … The only problem with the official account is that it was untrue.”

But parallels between the Lynch and bin Laden cases are inexact and misleading. The heroics attributed to Jessica Lynch weren’t “lies” spread by the U.S. military; the account of her battlefield derring-do was no “official account,” either.

Far from it.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the tale about Lynch was thrust into the public domain prominently and exclusively by the Washington Post.

The Post published an electrifying story on April 3, 2003, that declared that Lynch had been “‘fighting to the death'” when she was overpowered by Iraqi attackers  and taken prisoner.

The Post reported that Lynch, a supply clerk in the 507th Maintenance Unit, “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting” at Nasiriyah.

The newspaper also said Lynch was “stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in on her position.”

But the Post’s dramatic hero-warrior tale was utterly wrong: Lynch never fired a shot in the fighting at Nasiriyah: Her rifle jammed.

She was neither shot nor stabbed; she suffered severe injuries in the crash of her Humvee as it sped away from the ambush.

As for sources, the Post vaguely cited “U.S. officials” who otherwise went unidentified. (And as I’ve said at Media Myth Alert, the Post has an obligation to the public to set the record straight by disclosing the identity of those sources.)

We do know that the Post’s sources were not Pentagon officials.

We know this from Vernon Loeb, one of the Post reporters who shared a byline on the “‘fighting to the death'” tale about Lynch.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Loeb went on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program in December 2003 and made clear that the Post’s sources weren’t Pentagon officials.

Loeb said: “They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

He dismissed the interviewer’s suggestion that the Post’s “fighting to the death” report was the Pentagon’s result of clever and cynical manipulation.

“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.”

He also said: “Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Moreover, the then Defense Department spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, was quoted by the Associated Press news agency as saying in June 2003: “We were downplaying [the Lynch hero-warrior story]. We weren’t hyping it.”

The exaggerated tale about Lynch wasn’t a story that the Pentagon concocted, pushed, or embraced. It wasn’t an “official account” by any means.

It was solely the product of the Post’s over-eager journalism, an episode in flawed reporting for which the newspaper has never fully accounted.

Indeed, the Post has tried to dodge responsibility for its erroneous tale about Lynch.

In a follow-up story about Lynch published in June 2003, the Post had the temerity to fault the U.S. military and the administration of President George Bush for failing to correct the error for which the Post was responsible.

“Neither the Pentagon nor the White House publicly dispelled the more romanticized initial version of her capture,” the Post said, “helping to foster the myth surrounding Lynch and fuel accusations that the Bush administration stage-managed parts of Lynch’s story.”

It was, I write in Getting It Wrong, “an astounding assertion: The Post, alone, was responsible for propagating the ‘romanticized initial version’ that created the hero-warrior myth. To claim the Pentagon and the White House should have done more to dispel that report was, in short, exceedingly brazen.”

In his 2005 book, Misunderstimated, Bill Sammon, now a Fox News executive in Washington, D.C., said the Post’s attempt at blame-shifting represented “a new low, even for the shameless American press.”

He added:

“One of the most influential newspapers in the nation was now holding the Bush Administration responsible for correcting the paper’s own gross journalistic misdeeds. Instead of just coming clean and admitting its initial story was utterly bogus, the Post called it ‘romanticized,’ as if someone other than its own reporters had done the romanticizing.”



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