I’ve expressed astonishment at Media Myth Alert from time to time about how the national spotlight still finds Jessica Lynch, who became the most familiar face of the early Iraq War because of a botched, front page story in the Washington Post about her supposed battlefield heroics.
That was a sensational account, picked up by news organizations across the country and 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.”
But the Post story was utterly in error: Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army private, never fired a shot in Iraq. She was neither shot nor stabbed, as the Post reported, but suffered shattering injuries in the crash of a Humvee as it tried to escape an Iraqi ambush in Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003.
She was no battlefield hero.
Over time, however, the singular role of the Washington Post in propelling Lynch into unmerited fame has receded in favor of a false narrative that says the Pentagon concocted the hero-warrior story about Lynch to bolster Americans’ support for the war.
Time magazine repeated the false narrative the other day in a writeup about Lynch, whom it calls one of the “faces of the decade”–a handful of men and women the magazine says “became famous overnight not for glamour or riches or simply being famous but for the explosive public issues they represented.”
Time says flatly that Lynch “was a victim of the propaganda machine at the Pentagon, which exaggerated her heroics.”
Whether Lynch merits inclusion in the “faces of the debate” is highly debatable. What’s not debatable is the magazine’s inaccurate characterization of Lynch’s improbable emergence to unsought fame.
As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the Pentagon was not the source for the botched report in the Post about Lynch’s supposed heroics in Iraq. The U.S. military was loath to discuss the sketchy reports from the battlefield that told of her heroic deeds.
I note in Getting It Wrong that Vernon Loeb, then the defense writer for the Post, went on an NPR program in late 2003 to say that he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.
“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” Loeb said in an interview on the Fresh Air show.
“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.”
Loeb declared: “Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”
Not surprisingly, the Time writeup doesn’t say how the Pentagon (if it had been the source) so thoroughly duped the Post into publishing the bogus report: No one pushing the false narrative about the Pentagon’s having ginned up the Lynch story addresses that critical element.
The Post–to its discredit–has never disclosed the source of its botched story, which appeared April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:
“‘She was fighting to the death.'”
Lynch told Time that she doesn’t know how the phony report about her battlefield derring-do took hold. In excerpts of an interview posted at the Time online site, Lynch says:
“Honestly, I have no idea where the stories were created.”
The interview excerpts make no reference to the Post or its erroneous report. (Interestingly, a separate article in Time that ruminates about errors by journalists does mention the Post, saying: “Lynch’s Iraq heroics grew out of a single inaccurate story in the Washington Post.”)
And so it lives on, a blight on the historical record.
Recent and related:
- WaPo’s belated and puzzling Lynch correction
- Jimmy Carter fumbles Watergate history
- ‘Good narrative trumps good history’
- Sniffing out media myths
- The Post ‘took down a president’? That’s a myth
- On Cronkite, Jon Stewart, and ‘the most trusted man’
- Palin’s new book invokes ‘bra-burning’ stereotype
- ‘Persuasive and entertaining’: WSJ reviews ‘Getting It Wrong’