W. Joseph Campbell

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.

WJC

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