W. Joseph Campbell

Indulging in myth on the way out

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on January 22, 2011 at 9:04 am

The insufferable Keith Olbermann bid sudden farewell last night, indulging in media myth as he left his primetime “Countdown” show on MSNBC.

Olbermann, who quit or was pushed out midway through a four-year contract,  said in an on-air valedictory that his program had “established its position as anti-establishment with the stagecraft of Mission Accomplished to the exaggerated rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq to the death of Pat Tillman to Hurricane Katrina to the nexus of politics and terror to the first special comment.”

The reference to the “exaggerated rescue of Jessica Lynch”  caught the attention of Media Myth Alert, given that Olbermann clearly suggested the mission was needlessly hyped.

That claim is an element of the multidimensional media myth that has come to define the Lynch case, which I examine in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Lynch was a 19-year-old Army private captured after an ambush in Nasiriyah in the first days of the Iraq War in 2003. She was badly injured and lingered near death at an Iraqi hospital, from where she rescued April 1, 2003, in a swift and well-coordinated raid by a U.S. special operations team.

The rescue of Jessica Lynch

Lynch was the first captured American soldier rescued from behind enemy lines since World War II.

In mid-May 2003, the British Broadcasting Corporation aired a report claiming the Lynch rescue was “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived,” a shameless bit of stagecraft done for propaganda purposes.

The BBC report interviewed an Iraqi doctor who said the rescue raid “was like a Hollywood film. They cried, ‘go, go, go,’ with guns and blanks without bullets and the sound of explosion.”

The Pentagon dismissed the BBC’s “news management” claims as “void of all facts and absolutely ridiculous.” Experts scoffed at the claim that Special Operations units would conduct a mission with blanks in their weapons, as the BBC had reported.

At the request of three Democratic members of Congress, including then-Congressman Rahm Emanuel, the Defense Department inspector general investigated the BBC’s allegations.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Thomas F. Gimble, the acting inspector general, reported to Congress in April 2007 that the BBC’s allegations had not been substantiated, that no evidence had been uncovered to support the notion the rescue “was a staged media event.”

Rather, Gimble said, the rescue operation was found to have been “a valid mission” to recover a prisoner of war “under combat conditions.”

Gimble said in written testimony that more than 30 witnesses were interviewed in the inspector general’s inquiry, including members of the Special Operations rescue team. Few if any of those witnesses had been interviewed the BBC or other news organizations, he said.

The inspector general’s report was, I note in Getting It Wrong, “an unequivocal rebuke to the BBC’s account.

“Even so, by the time Gimble testified, four years had passed and the BBC’s version had become an unshakeable, widely accepted element of the Lynch saga,” as suggested in Olbermann’s farewell remarks last night.

The BBC claim that the rescue mission was counterfeit corresponded to a broader view that the Pentagon was up to no good in the Lynch case, that it had planted an erroneous report about her supposed battlefield heroics in order to boost popular support for the war.

The erroneous report appeared in the Washington Post on April 3, 2003, two days after the rescue.

In a front-page account published beneath the headline, “‘She was fighting to the death,'” the Post anonymously cited “U.S. officials” in saying Lynch had “fought fiercely” in the ambush of her unit in Nasiriyah, that she had “shot several enemy soldiers,” and that she had continued firing her weapon “until she ran out of ammunition.”

As it turned out, the hero-warrior tale — written by Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb — untrue. Lynch did not fire her weapon in the ambush. Nor was she shot and stabbed, as the Post had reported.

But as months passed and American public opinion turned against the war, the role of the Post in propelling Lynch into unwarranted international fame receded in favor of the false narrative that the Pentagon had made it all up. The Post itself has been complicit at times in suggesting machinations by the Pentagon.

However, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, the Pentagon was not the source for the hero-warrior tale. Loeb, one of the reporters who wrote the botched story, said on an NPR program in mid-December 2003 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 on the Fresh Air show.

“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 declared:

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

Loeb described them as “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.”

Despite Loeb’s exculpatory remarks, the erroneous view the Pentagon made up the story about Lynch’s derring-do lives on, in large measure because it fits well with the notion the Iraq War was a botched affair. And like many media myths, the false narrative offers a simplistic, easy-to-understand account of an event that was both complex and faraway.

WJC

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