To cherry-pick is to be highly selective, to use facts that support one’s position while ignoring the confounding evidence.
And that’s essentially what Rachel Maddow did on her MSNBC program last night. She cherry-picked details about the reporting of the hero-warrior story about Jessica Lynch to avoid correcting her erroneous claim on a show June 3. Maddow had said in a commentary that night “the Pentagon made up” the tale of Lynch’s battlefield heroics in the first days of the Iraq War.
In cherry-picking, Maddow failed to mention the foundation of the bogus hero-warrior story – the Washington Post article that cited “U.S. officials” in saying that Lynch, then a 19-year-old supply clerk, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her Army unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, on March 23, 2003. The Post’s story turned out to be wrong in almost all vital details.
One of the reporters on the story, which the Post published on its front page on April 3, 2003, later said, unequivocally:
“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”
Rather, he said, without a trace of irony, they were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C.
The reporter was Vernon Loeb, who at the time the Post’s defense correspondent. He also said in an interview that aired on NPR in December 2003: “We got these intelligence reports right as [Lynch] was being rescued” in an operation mounted by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003. Lynch has been grievously injured in the crash of a Humvee in trying to escape the ambush; she was taken prisoner and held at an Iraqi hospital in Nasiriyah.
Loeb said the Post’s story “turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong.”
What’s more, he said:
“I could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about those [intelligence] reports at all. I got indications that they had, in fact, received those intelligence reports, but the Pentagon was completely unwilling to comment on those reports at all. They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.
“I’ve never believed that, at least as far as the story we wrote goes, that it was a Pentagon attempt to create a hero there.”
Despite Loeb’s statements about the sourcing of the hero-warrior story, a false narrative has taken hold over the years that the Pentagon concocted the tale about Lynch’s battlefield derring-do, supposedly to build homefront support for the war.
On her show last night, Maddow referred neither to Loeb’s statements nor to the Post’s seminal report about Lynch. She instead assailed Politifact, a blog aligned with Punditfact, which had assessed as false her claim last week that the Pentagon “made up” the tale of Lynch’s heroics.
According to a transcript of her remarks last night, Maddow smugly declared:
“So, this is a pretty simple thing from the fact-checking perspective. Did the military provide false information that led to the narrative that Jessica Lynch went down fighting when she was captured?”
(Note the none-too-subtle shift: On her program June 3, Maddow asserted that “the Pentagon made up” the story about Lynch’s heroics. Last night, her parameters were: “Did the military provide false information that led to the narrative ….” Not quite the same.)
Maddow referred last night to a report by the Military Times on April 3, 2003, in which a military spokesman, Frank Thorp, was quoted as saying that Lynch “waged quite a battle prior to her capture.
“We do have very strong indications that Jessica Lynch was not captured very easily,” Thorp also was quoted as saying. “Reports are that she fired her (M-16 rifle) until she had no more ammunition.”
Maddow crowed: “That information straight from a military public affairs official was not true. It was made up. But it landed in press reports anyway.”
What Maddow neglected to mention was that Thorp was recapping for the Military Times what the Washington Post had already published.
Thorp, then a Navy captain assigned to the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, was not inventing, he was following. He was restating elements of a story the Post had already placed in circulation, a story based on intelligence sources, a story that quickly attracted all sorts of international attention.
As the Post’s ombudsman at the time, Michael Getler, pointed out: “The Post story [about Lynch] was exclusive. The rest of the world’s media picked it up from The Post, which put this tale into the public domain.”
Indeed, it is impossible to address the hero-warrior tale about Lynch without considering the Washington Post’s central and decisive role in the story. And Thorp’s subsequent statements made clear that he had been following the Post’s lead that day. Thorp said in an email in 2007 to a congressional staffer who had asked about the comments to the Military Times:
“As I recall, this was a short interview and media desperately wanted me to confirm the story that was running in the States .… I never said that I had seen any intel or even intimated the same .… I may have said I am familiar with ‘the reports’ meaning the press reports, but as you can see I did not confirm them .… We did have reports of a battle and that a firefight had occurred .… That is what I stated.” (Ellipses in the original.)
Thorp later was quoted by Newsweek as saying he was not a source for the Post on its seminal story about Lynch’s heroics.
Which makes sense. Had he been a source for the Post on the Lynch story, why would the newspaper resist identifying him as such, especially after his remarks to the Military Times? If Thorp, a military spokesman, had been a source for the Post, why would Loeb, months after the hero-warrior story was published, insist that his sources had been “intelligence sources”?
Thorp at most played a bit part in the Lynch saga.
Besides, the cynical, Pentagon-made-it-up narrative never made much sense. As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “At the time of the Lynch rescue, U.S. forces were closing in on Baghdad. So it defies logic to argue that the American military would have singled out and hyped the Lynch rescue for morale-building purposes when its central and vastly more important wartime objective was within reach.”
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Maddow wrongly declares Pentagon ‘made up’ bogus tale about Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics
- Why WaPo should reveal sources on bogus Jessica Lynch tale
- The military’s ‘fabrication’? No, Jessica Lynch was WaPo’s story
- Jon Krakauer rolls back claim about WaPo ‘source’ in Jessica Lynch case
- Women at the front: Recalling Jessica Lynch in Iraq
- Lynch says she could’ve embraced Post’s phony hero story
- ‘Mythmaking in Iraq,’ at a conference in New York
- ‘Good narrative trumps good history’
- Sniffing out media myths
- The Post ‘took down a president’? That’s a myth
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes Majic