W. Joseph Campbell

Digitally scrubbing WaPo’s embarrassment on Jessica Lynch?

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on April 27, 2012 at 2:15 pm

The Washington Post carried a fine story yesterday about Vogue magazine’s apparent removal from its online site of an unaccountably flattering profile of Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Where's the digital version?

The Post said the 3,200-word puff piece in Vogue “apparently proved so embarrassing to the magazine that it scrubbed it from its Web site, an almost-unheard-of step for a mainstream media organization and a generally acknowledged violation of digital etiquette.”

That observation — “violation of digital etiquette” — evoked for me the unavailability online of the Post’s embarrassingly wrong-headed reports in 2003 about Jessica Lynch and her supposed heroism early in the Iraq War.

In an electrifying account published on its front page April 3, 2003, the Post reported that Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her unit in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq.

Lynch, according to the Post,  “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in the fighting,” which took place March 23, 2003.

The hero-warrior tale about Lynch turned out to be utterly wrong in all crucial details. She was neither shot nor stabbed, as the Post reported; she suffered shattering injuries in the crash of a Humvee fleeing the ambush.

Lynch was taken prisoner and moved to an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until her rescue by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

The Post’s hero-warrior tale appeared two days later.

But try finding the Post’s digitized version of that story. Here’s the link; but clicking through turns up the article’s headline, byline, date of publication, and page placement. But no text.

(The Post’s story is available in full at the online site of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

Later in April 2003, the Post’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, published a critical column about the hero-warrior story, noting that “several readers wrote to complain, saying they did not doubt ‘the gravity of Lynch’s situation,’ as one put it, but that The Post, ‘using unnamed sources,’ was ‘creating a sensationalist story riddled with inaccuracies.’ ‘I smell an agenda,’ said one reader, suspecting wartime ‘propaganda.’ Another was suspicious of the ‘Hollywood-like telling of the story.'”

Try finding Getler’s column online.

Here’s the link; but in this case, too, just the headline, byline, publication date, and page reference are available.

In mid-June 2003, the Post revisited and grudgingly walked back from aspects of its hero-warrior story about Lynch. One media critic characterized the article as “the journalistic equivalent of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.”

(And as I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the walk-back story “included a nervy attempt by the Post to deflect blame from its central role in spreading the hero-warrior myth of Jessica Lynch.”

(The Post, I note, “faulted the U.S. military and the administration of President George Bush for failing to correct an 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 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.”)

Well, good luck in finding the Post’s walk-back story online.

Here’s the link; but, again, only the headline, byline, publication date, and page reference show up.

So has the Post excised the digital reminders of an embarrassing misstep, of a dramatic story that it thoroughly and singularly botched? Has it, at a minimum, committed a “violation of digital etiquette”?

Rather looks like it. (The Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, promised to “check into” my questions. He also said in an email today: “It’s very hard to trace some of this back when The Post has gone through several computer systems since that time, but I’ll make an effort.”)

Separately, I’ve been told that Post stories published before 2005 have largely been placed behind a paywall. For the most part, that is, they’re not freely available online.

But some special sections are accessible online without payment — and they include the Post’s link-rich “War in Iraq” digital archive.

And in a box at the lower right corner of the digital archive is an Army photograph of none other than Jessica Lynch.

Lynch photo at WaPo's Iraq War archive

The box carries the headline, “Saving Pfc Lynch,” and offers a link to an article published in the Post April 4, 2003, a day after the botched hero-warrior tale.

The April 4 article ran to 1,500 words in discussing the Iraqi lawyer who helped set in motion Lynch’s rescue.

And that article is available in full.


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