W. Joseph Campbell

Time for WaPo to disclose sources on bogus Lynch story

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on April 3, 2011 at 7:16 am

It may border on sacrilege to ask journalists to divulge confidential sources.

Private Lynch

In the still-murky case of Private Jessica Lynch, it’s an appropriate and relevant request.

Eight years ago today, the Washington Post published an electrifying, front-page report that thrust Lynch into international fame which has never fully receded.

Based on comments by “U.S. officials” it otherwise did not identify, the Post said Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk in the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her unit at Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq.

Lynch, the Post reported, “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting.”

The newspaper quoted “one official” as saying:

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

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Post’s hero-warrior tale was an immediate sensation, a story picked up by news outlets around the world.  For example, the Daily Telegraph of Sydney, Australia, reported Lynch’s purported heroics on its front page, saying she had “staged a one-woman fight to the death,” and was “certain to become a national icon.”

But the hero-warrior tale about Lynch was  utterly false.

She never fired a shot at Nasiriyah; her rifle jammed during the attack. She suffered shattering injuries when a rocket-propelled grenade struck her Humvee, causing the vehicle to crash. But she wasn’t shot.

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

Meanwhile, the real hero of Nasiriyah, an Army cook-sergeant named Donald Walters, received nothing remotely approaching the attention given the false story about Lynch’s purported derring-do. Walters is believed to have fought to his last bullet at Nasiriyah. He was captured and executed by Iraqi irregulars.

The Post showed no interest in Walters’ heroism, or in explaining how his deeds were misattributed to Lynch.

And as I note in Getting It Wrong, the Post never has disclosed the identity of the source or sources behind its bogus “fighting to the death” story about Lynch.

So why does sourcing of the Post’s erroneous report still matter, eight years on?

It matters because, as months passed and American public opinion turned against the war in Iraq, the singular role of the Post in the mythical hero-warrior narrative about Lynch faded in favor of a false narrative that the Pentagon had made it all up.

The military concocted the hero-warrior tale and fed it to the Post in a crude attempt to bolster U.S. support for the Iraq War. So the false narrative goes.

The Post itself has been complicit in suggesting that machinations by the Pentagon were behind the bogus story. But it’s clear that the Post alone placed the “fighting to the death” story into the public domain.

And as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the Pentagon wasn’t the source for the hero-warrior tale.

Vernon Loeb, who shared a byline on the “fighting to the death” story, said in December 2003 on NPR’s  Fresh Air show program 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.

“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.”

Loeb on another occasion was quoted by the New York Times as saying: “Far from promoting stories about Lynch, the military didn’t like the story.”

Despite Loeb’s exculpatory remarks, the erroneous view the Pentagon concocted the story about Lynch’s heroics lives on, in large measure because it corresponds so well to the view that the Iraq War was a thoroughly botched affair.

Like many media-driven myths, the false narrative about the Pentagon offers a simplistic, easy-to-understand account of an event — a war — that was complex, controversial, and faraway.

By identifying its sources for the erroneous “fighting to the death” report about Lynch, the Post will correct a false narrative.

Its sources on the “fighting to the death” story don’t deserve the cloak of anonymity, given how they so badly misled the newspaper. Journalist-source confidentiality isn’t intended as a vehicle to cover up error and permit the diffusion of false accusation.

So who were those “really good intelligence sources”? The Post has an obligation to say.

Especially since it has been the newspaper’s policy to press sources to be quoted by name. On the record.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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