W. Joseph Campbell

Why WaPo should reveal sources on bogus Jessica Lynch tale

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on April 3, 2012 at 12:36 pm

On this date in 2003, the Washington Post published on its front page the electrifying but stunningly wrong hero-warrior tale about Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a botched report that carried the headline:

She was fighting to the death

Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army supply clerk, had fought fiercely in the attack of her unit in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, according to the Post, which cited anonymous “U.S. officials” as its sources.

One of them told the Post that Lynch had suffered gunshot and stab wounds “and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” in the ambush March 23, 2003.

It was exhilarating stuff and the Post’s report was picked up by news organizations around the world.

But it was wrong in almost all important details. Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed. She did not fire a shot in the ambush. She suffered crushing injuries in the crash of a Humvee as it attempted to flee the ambush.

She was taken prisoner and treated at an Iraqi hospital, from where she was rescued April 1, 2003, by a U.S. special operations team.

As Lynch herself insists, she was no hero (although she has said she could have embraced the hero-warrior tale and no one would’ve been the wiser).

Years later, it’s time for the Post to disclose just who it was that led it astray. It’s time to reveal the sources on the bogus story about Lynch.

It may be akin to sacrilege to argue that a newspaper should lift the veil of anonymity. But reasons  for making something of an exception in the Lynch case are several and compelling.

For one, news organizations owe little to anonymous sources that provide bad information. The grant of confidentiality isn’t meant to be a vehicle for diffusing falsehood.

In this case, the embarrassment quotient remains high enough for the Post to identify its Lynch sources — if not by name, then by affiliation.

Another compelling reason to lift the veil of anonymity is that the veil has been partly lifted already. One of the reporters on the botched story, Vernon Loeb, is on record as saying who the sources were not.

So it should be a small step to saying who they were.

Loeb, in an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” program in December 2003, stated unequivocally:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

He also said he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

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

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

Loeb also described them as “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington.

Despite Loeb’s insistence that the sources weren’t Pentagon sources, the narrative has taken hold that the military made up the story about Lynch’s heroics and somehow persuaded the Post to buy it.

This has become the dominant narrative of the Lynch case, as I point out in my book, Getting It Wrong.

By identifying its sources on the Lynch story, the Post could demolish the military-made-it-up narrative and, by doing so, strike a blow for accuracy and truth-telling.

There’s another compelling reason for the Post to lift anonymity in this case: The newspaper’s long silence on its sourcing has allowed twisted and erroneous claims to circulate as factual.

Notable in this regard are the claims Jon Krakauer made in his 2009 book Where Men Win Glory about Jim Wilkinson, an aide to the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003, General Tommy Franks.

Krakauer wrote that Wilkinson “duped reporters and editors at the Washington Post” by giving them exclusive access to the bogus tale about Lynch’s battlefield heroics.

Krakauer in the book also called Wilkinson a “master propagandist” and said he was “the guy who deserved top billing for creating the myth of Jessica Lynch.”

Wilkinson denied Krakauer’s allegations and met with the author to discuss a retraction.

Krakauer quietly retreated from his unattributed charges about Wilkinson, removing the unflattering passages from a recent paperback edition of Where Men Win Glory. That edition also contains a footnote, saying:

“Earlier editions of this book stated that it was Jim Wilkinson ‘who arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access’ to this leaked intelligence [about Jessica Lynch]. This is incorrect. Wilkinson had nothing to do with the leak.”

Had the Post been transparent about the sourcing on its Lynch story,  Krakauer’s unsubstantiated allegations likely never would have been raised.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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