W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Anonymous sources’

15 years on, Jessica Lynch case a classic lesson about perils of unnamed sourcing

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on March 29, 2018 at 8:55 am

Fifteen years ago next week, the Washington Post published the most sensational, electrifying, and thoroughly botched front-page story about the early Iraq War.

The Post’s reporting deserves to be recalled as a classic lesson about the perils and lasting effects of basing news accounts on the word of anonymous sources whose identities, motives, and presumed access to first-hand knowledge can only be guessed at by readers.

Lynch in 2003

The Post told how Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old Army supply clerk from West Virginia, had “fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed” elements of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company on March 23, 2003.

Lynch shot at attacking Iraqis even though she suffered “multiple gunshot wounds” and saw “several other soldiers in her unit die around her,” the Post reported.

Lynch kept “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition” and was taken prisoner, the Post further declared in its article, which appeared April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

No one from the Post was with Lynch and her unit when it was ambushed in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. No Western journalists were there.

The Post reported the hero-warrior story from Washington; two veteran reporters, Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb, shared the byline. They based their breathless account about Lynch on the word of “U.S. officials,” whom they otherwise did not describe. They quoted one of the “officials” as memorably saying:

“She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.”

Schmidt and Loeb’s account gave few other details about Lynch’s heroics. Even so, the story went viral: As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the hero-warrior story picked up by news organizations around the world.

For many of those outlets, the good name of the Washington Post was adequate authority.

U.S. cable news shows, as the New York Times noted, “ran with a report from The Washington Post that the 19-year-old P.O.W. had been shot and stabbed yet still kept firing at enemy soldiers.”

The New York Times also published a commentary by Melani McAlister, an American Studies scholar, who compared Lynch to Hannah Dunston and other long-ago American heroines.

A commentary in USA Today  described Lynch as “the latest in a long line of women who prove their sex’s capacity for steely heroism.”

A columnist for the Hartford Courant quoted the historian Douglas Brinkley as likening Lynch to an “Annie Oakley of the high-tech world.” Lynch was, the columnist wrote, “the nation’s latest unlikely combat celebrity.”

Lynch, as it soon turned out, had been neither shot nor stabbed. She had not fired her weapon; it had jammed during the ambush.

She was badly injured attempting to flee the ambush in a Humvee. According to her biographer, Rick Bragg, she cowered in the back seat, praying, “Oh God help us. Oh God, get us out of here.”

The Humvee was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed, fatally injuring the driver and three other occupants. The impact shattered bones in Lynch’s body. She was unconscious when captured by the Iraqis and she lingered near death for nine days at an Iraqi hospital that doubled as a staging area for Iraqi irregular troops. On April 1, 2003, Lynch was rescued by U.S. special forces.

The Post’s erroneous reporting about Lynch’s derring-do was the subject of searching commentary by the newspaper’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, a straight-shooter who died this month at 82.

Getler criticized the Post’s reporting about Lynch while making clear the issue was “about journalism: about sources and reporters, motivation and manipulation, and finding the truth, as best we can, about a story that became the best known saga of the war” in its early days.

Getler was right. The botched report was, fundamentally, a cautionary lesson about journalists and unnamed sources — about the hazards of basing news reports on such sources.

The Post’s sourcing on the hero-warrior story about Lynch was opaque. It offered readers no explanation about who the “U.S. officials” were or where they worked. It gave readers no insight as to why the “U.S. officials” required or received the cloak of anonymity.

The sourcing was so vague that a pernicious assumption soon arose that the Pentagon had concocted the tale about Lynch’s heroism and fed it to the Post as a way to bolster public support for the war. That’s a false narrative, one the Post has done very little to counteract, beyond comments Loeb once made in a radio interview.

Loeb, who is now managing editor at the Houston Chronicle, went on NPR’s  Fresh Air show program in December 2003 to say he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” he said.

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

He also said:

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

Loeb said the “U.S. officials” cited in the Lynch article were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C., and added:

“We wrote a story that turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong. That happens quite often.”

As if that’s adequate reason to excuse or exonerate a news outlet that transmits bogus information on a major story.

The narrative that the Pentagon made it up has persisted. For example, London’s Independent newspaper recalled the Lynch case a few years ago and asserted that “the Pentagon exaggerated her story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon.”

(Lynch has long insisted she was no hero — although she has said she could have embraced the bogus hero-warrior tale and no one would’ve been the wiser.)

The Post’s opaque sourcing also gave rise to serious misidentification. The author Jon Krakauer declared in his 2009 book, Where Men With Glory, that a White House official named Jim Wilkinson had “arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access” to the information about Lynch’s supposed heroism.

Wilkinson denied the unattributed claim and met with Krakauer who, in a subsequent paperback edition of the book, inserted a footnote containing an obscure retraction that said:

“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.”

The Post’s opaque sourcing also had the effect of diverting attention from a real hero of Nasiriyah — Sgt. Donald Walters.

Walters apparently did fight to the death, laying down covering fire as Lynch and her comrades tried to escape the ambush.

When his ammunition ran out, Walters was captured and executed by his captors soon afterward.

His heroism apparently was misattributed to Lynch, in a case of mistaken identity. In any event, Walters’ fate received little media attention. Unlike Jessica Lynch, Donald Walters never made the cover of popular magazines such as Newsweek, People, or Time.

Anonymous sourcing can have powerful and harmful effects, as the Lynch case shows. These effects still could be corrected should the Post summon the courage to identify the “U.S. officials” who led the newspaper astray on a sensational and memorable story 15 years ago.

To that point, Getler in a column in November 2003 quoted a reader as saying that considering the Post’s “starring role in perpetuating the myth” about Lynch and her battlefield heroics, its journalists “ought to have … done some top-notch, multi-story investigative reporting on who concocted this hoax and how they were able to hoodwink the public with it through the national media.

A fine suggestion. Even now, such reporting would make for great reading.


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Who chased Nixon from office? Not Woodward, Bernstein

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 2, 2015 at 2:16 pm

The National Journal offered an intriguing discussion yesterday about what it called “the background briefing racket,” in which government officials meet with reporters to “spew their clever lines of lies and spin, and declare it all ‘on background'” — meaning they aren’t linked by name to what they said.

It is a racket that allows officials to evade accountability.

But what most interested Media Myth Alert was this passage in the article, written by veteran Washington journalist Ron Fournier:

Did he know he was 'Deep Throat'?

The ambitious Mark Felt

“When reporters call the shots, anonymous sources are vital to uncovering government secrets and wrongdoing (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used Mark Felt and other whistleblowers to chase Richard Nixon out of office).”

Woodward and Bernstein chased Nixon out of office?

Not quite.

Woodward and Bernstein were the Washington Post’s lead reporters on Watergate scandal of 1972-74, but their work hardly can be said to have forced Nixon to resign the presidency.

As Woodward, himself, has said:

To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

And as I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the complexity and dimension of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings,” which captured him approving a plan to deflect the FBI’s investigation into the signal crime of Watergate — the foiled burglary in mid-June 1974 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The Post did not disclose the existence of the White House tapes. Nor did the Post reveal the White House coverup of the crimes of Watergate.

So to assert, even in an off-handed way, that Woodward and Bernstein were pivotal or central to chasing Nixon from the White House is to misread history and indulge in one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths.

A couple of other points about the parenthetical phrase, “Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used Mark Felt and other whistleblowers to chase Richard Nixon out of office.”

Bernstein never met Mark Felt during Watergate scandal, nor for many years afterward. Felt was the secret source and senior FBI official known as “Deep Throat,” with whom Woodward periodically conferred in 1972 and 1973, sometimes in a parking garage in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia.

But not until 2008, late in Felt’s life, was Bernstein introduced to him.

Also, Felt was no whistleblower, not in a high-minded, altruistic sense. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out almost 10 years ago in a review of Woodward’s book about Felt, Watergate represented “the single most successful use of the news media by an anonymous unelected official with an agenda of his own.” Meaning Felt’s own kind of “background briefing racket.”

Max Holland’s book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, argues persuasively that Felt was no principled whistleblower.

He was driven by the internal struggle at the FBI to replace J. Edgar Hoover, who died in May 1972. Felt in leaking to Woodward sought to undercut the acting director, L. Patrick Gray III, and thereby enhance Felt’s chances of being named to the bureau’s top position.

Self-advancement was his principal motive. He failed, and retired in 1973.

It deserves mentioning that Felt was no hero, no noble figure.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Felt authorized burglaries as part of the FBI’s investigations into leftists associated with the radical Weather Underground. He was convicted in 1980 of felony charges related to the break-ins, but was pardoned the following year by President Ronald Reagan.


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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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WaPo’s latest ‘missed’ opportunity evokes Jessica Lynch case

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Washington Post on June 26, 2011 at 9:11 am

Patrick Pexton has been hesitant and a bit baffling in three-plus months as the Washington Post’s ombudsman.

His choice of topics — he recently discussed the Post’s coverage of women’s sports — suggests he’s no Michael Getler, who set a rather hard-nosed standard in five years as ombudsman, and no Deborah Howell, who poked at the ideological lopsidedness of the Post’s newsroom.

But Pexton gets moderately tough in his column published today, criticizing the Post for fumbling the case of Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented immigrant who was a Post reporter for several years and kept his status mostly a secret.

A Post editor, Patrick Perl, knew that Vargas was an undocumented immigrant but kept quiet about it.

Vargas recently submitted to the Post a lengthy, first-person essay about his status and time as a reporter there. For reasons not entirely clear, the newspaper in mid-June abruptly spiked the piece.

So Vargas took his account to the New York Times, which published it in today’s magazine.

In his column about the Vargas case, Pexton asks:

“Why would The Post punt to a rival a riveting, already edited story that could provoke national discussion on immigration — an issue that sorely needs it — and that also included possibly illegal, and perhaps forgivable, conduct by a former Post reporter and current member of management?

“Beats the heck out of many in The Post’s newsroom,” Pexton adds, “and beats the heck out of me.”

He adds that in the Vargas matter, the Post “missed an opportunity to tell a great and compelling story, and to air and take responsibility for some internal dirty laundry. It’s that kind of act that earns you the lasting respect of your readers. It keeps their trust.”

It’s a ringing line with which to close a column.

It’s also an observation that evokes another messy case the Post has never thoroughly addressed: It never has come clean about its bogus hero-warrior story about Jessica Lynch, a story that became an international sensation in the early days of the Iraq War.

Lynch was a shy 19-year-old private, a supply clerk in the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company. Elements of her unit were caught in a deadly ambush in southern Iraq in March 2003.

The Post reported that Lynch fought fiercely in the attack, “even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” before being taken prisoner. She also was stabbed in the attack, the Post reported, but fought the Iraqis until she ran out of ammunition.

The Post quoted an otherwise anonymous “U.S. official” as saying: “She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.”

Private Lynch

But in fact Lynch never fired a shot in the ambush.

Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed.

She suffered shattering injuries was badly injured in the crash of a Humvee fleeing the attack.

Lynch was treated at an Iraqi hospital from where she was rescued by a U.S. commando team on April 1, 2003. The Post’s bogus hero-warrior story came out two days later.

In the years since, the newspaper has never fully explained how it got the hero-warrior story so utterly wrong; nor has it dealt adequately with fallout from the Lynch case.

As I note in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, the Post had the temerity, in a follow-up article published in June 2003, to blame the U.S. military and the administration of President George Bush for failing to correct an error for which the Post, alone, was responsible.

“Neither the Pentagon nor the White House publicly dispelled the more romanticized initial version of her capture,” the Post said in the follow-up article — as if the “romanticized initial version” wasn’t the Post’s, alone.

So why still fuss about the Post and its botched the story about Lynch?

For at least two compelling and somewhat related reasons.

One is the false narrative that has come to define the Lynch case — a narrative that says the Pentagon planted the bogus hero-warrior tale in order to bolster support for the war at home.

That narrative endures even though Vernon Loeb, one of the reporters on the original Lynch story, has said the Pentagon wasn’t the source for the hero-warrior tale.

“I could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about those reports [of Lynch’s battlefield derring-do] at all,” Loeb said on an NPR program in late 2003, adding:

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

The other reason it still matters is that a former White House operative named Jim Wilkinson was fingered as the Post’s source in Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, a book by Jon Krakauer.

In the book, Krakauer referred to Wilkinson as a “master propagandist” and said he “deserves top billing for creating the myth of Jessica Lynch.”

But the book offered no specific source for its claims about Wilkinson, who at the time of Lynch’s capture and rescue was director of strategic communications for General Tommy Franks, then the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

I spoke with Wilkinson last year and he disputed Krakauer’s account as “factually incorrect” and insisted that “not one shred of evidence” links him to leaking the erroneous report to the Post.

Wilkinson also said:

“Tommy Franks would have killed me” had he been the Post’s source for the erroneous report about Lynch.

Wilkinson’s denial has a ring of validity, particularly his point about Franks.

The Post could swiftly resolve this lingering messiness by identifying the anonymous sources who led it astray on the Lynch story. The newspaper should feel no obligation to sources who caused it to err so badly.

Identifying those sources would reveal whether indeed the Pentagon planted the hero-warrior tale, and would clarify Wilkinson’s role, if any, in the Lynch case. And it would, as Pexton might say, represent “an opportunity to tell a great and compelling story” that would earn the respect of readers.


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