W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Ombudsman’

Final thoughts on a flawed PBS documentary

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on November 9, 2013 at 1:51 pm

It’s testimony to the program’s flaws and tedium that public discussion about the PBS “American Experience” documentary largely faded away within days if not hours after it was broadcast. The documentary revisited the famous radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds which aired 75 years ago and told of Martians mounting lethal attack on the United States.

Hyping the reaction

Did not

So realistic was the radio show that it supposedly pitched tens of thousands of listeners into panic and mass hysteria.

That, of course, makes for a timeless story, and  is a critical reason why the program is recalled and discussed unlike any other radio show. But the reports of panic and hysteria loosed by the radio show were grossly exaggerated by the newspapers of the day. As I discuss in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, whatever fear the program may have stirred, it did not rise to the level of nationwide panic and hysteria.

Eleven days ago, PBS revisited The War of the Worlds dramatization in a documentary notable for failing to confront the most important and intriguing questions about radio program: Did it set off panicked reactions across the country when it aired on October 30, 1938? If not, why is it so widely believed that it had such powerful and immediate effects?

In ducking those central questions, the documentary was an opportunity lost.

The PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, said as much in a column last week, saying he was “in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”

The PBS documentary prompted other criticism, too — including its use of cheesy recreated dialog spoken by actors clad in period clothing.

One of the actors played the part of a “Sylvia Holmes” from Newark, New Jersey, who supposedly was pitched into panic by The War of the Worlds radio show. The documentary, however, did not disclose that “Sylvia Holmes” was a pseudonymous character, whose “remarks” were taken from The Invasion From Mars, a flawed book about the radio show published in 1940. (That book intentionally obscured the identities of “Holmes” and other interview subjects.)

As I pointed out at Media Myth Alert last week, PBS editorial standards say that its programming content “should embrace the highest commitment to excellence, professionalism, intellectual honesty and transparency. In its news and information content, accuracy should be the cornerstone.”

Offering up a pseudonymous character and failing to identify her as such seemed to skirt those standards.

'Sylvia Holmes'

The pseudonymous ‘Sylvia Holmes’

Getler in a column yesterday said he didn’t think so. “The producers could have somehow pointed out that Sylvia Holmes was not a real name,” he wrote, adding:

“But I don’t view this as a war crime or as a spiritual violation of PBS standards. Whatever her real name, she was a real person.”

It’s sloppy, though. It’s slyly misleading, and it’s hardly in keeping with a commitment to transparency. As such, it’s another dent in a documentary that was full of them.

Getler reiterated in his column yesterday that the documentary’s “biggest flaw was failing to deal more thoroughly with the role that the press played after the broadcast in suggesting there was more panic than was actually the case. That, in my view, would have contributed to a more contextual public understanding of what actually happened in 1938.”

That’s quite true. But the documentary was more deeply flawed than that. Its makers, after all, ignored recent research that has impugned the notion The War of the Worlds program stirred mass panic.

And in dodging the central questions of The War of the Worlds program, the documentary ended up confused and meandering, not knowing for sure what it was supposed to do. So it turned out to be part tribute to the radio program; part tribute to the radio show’s director and star, Orson Welles;  part rumination about America of the late 1930s, and part digression about life on Mars.

At least it won’t be regarded as a definitive treatment about what was a clever, memorable, and mythical radio dramatization.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

The ombudsman agrees: PBS ‘War of the Worlds’ doc was missed opportunity

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on November 1, 2013 at 4:00 pm
Getler

Getler

Not many news organizations these days have internal critics, usually known as ombudsmen or “reader representatives.” Michael Getler, the ombudsman for PBS, is the best of them.

He’s a straightshooter, tough but fairminded.

Getler was often outstanding in five years as ombudsman at the Washington Post, notably calling out the newspaper’s botched reporting about Jessica Lynch’s mythical battlefield exploits early in the Iraq War.

Lynch was a 19-year-old Army private whom the Post catapulted to international fame in a story in April 2003 that claimed she fought fiercely in an ambush in Iraq, firing at her attackers despite being shot and stabbed and seeing comrades “die around her.” Lynch was taken prisoner, the Post, reported, only after running out of ammunition.

The electrifying story, which the Post based on otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials,” was wrong in every important detail. In his analyses, Getler was withering and incisive.

The hero-warrior story about Lynch, he wrote, “had an odor to it almost from the beginning, and other news organizations blew holes in it well before The Post did….”

Why, he asked in one of his columns, did the information in the Post’s hero-warrior story “remain unchallenged for so long?

“What were the motivations (and even the identities) of the leakers and sustainers of this myth, and why didn’t reporters dig deeper into it more quickly?” Getler asked.

Excellent questions, which the Post never has deigned to address.

In 2005, Getler became the first ombudsman at PBS, to help ensure “that PBS upholds its own rigorous standards of journalistic ethics for both online and on-air content.”

I was in touch with Getler by email weeks before PBS aired its recent turgid documentary about the famous radio dramatization in 1938 of The War of the Worlds, which told of a Martian invasion of the United States.

I described to Getler my concerns that the documentary would embrace the media myth that The War of the Worlds program set off mass panic and nationwide hysteria on the night it was aired. I also asked about how the documentary would present or characterize recent scholarship that has impugned the panic-and-hysteria interpretation.

My concerns were heightened because pre-broadcast material that PBS posted online said “perhaps a million [people] or more” were  “plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack.”

Getler forwarded my queries to Mark Samels, executive producer of the PBS “American Experience” series. Soon after, Getler told me that Samels said he was “not going to respond to someone who has not seen the program.” This was seven weeks before the documentary aired.

(Getler also noted that he did not speak for PBS and has no “pre-broadcast role” at the organization.)

I subsequently sent an email directly to Samels, reiterating my concerns.

Samels never replied.

Immediately after the documentary was shown Tuesday evening, I posted a commentary at Media Myth Alert saying the program represented a squandered opportunity to revisit The War of the Worlds dramatization in a searching and educational way.

PBS,  I wrote, “could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show … really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States. That’s the conventional wisdom, and it makes for a deliciously good yarn — that Americans back then were so skittish or doltish or unaccustomed to electronic media that they readily believed the story of the lethal Martian invasion of Earth, as described in The War of the Worlds broadcast.”

But PBS failed to raise searching questions or offer revealing insight about the famous radio show; instead, it presented a tedious program that claimed upwards “of a million people” were convinced, “if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders.”

No explanation was offered during the program as to how the makers of the documentary arrived at such a dubious figure.

Getler yesterday posted a thoughtful and insightful critique about the documentary. Notably, he pointed out that shortly before the program ended, “the narrator, just casually in his final summing up, includes this sentence:  ‘Ultimately, the very extent of the panic would come to be seen as having been exaggerated by the press.'”

“Really!” Getler wrote. “Is that not part of the real story? Is that not worth more than a sentence at the end of an hour-long program? Could that be described by some as burying the lead?”

“Burying the lead” is journalese for failing to assign prominence to the most important information of a news report.

And he’s right: PBS buried the lead in its War of the Worlds documentary.

Big time.

Getler also wrote:

“I find myself in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.'”

Getler’s column closed with comments — at long last — from Samels, who stated:

“Our film does not say that people panicked, nor does the script include the phrase ‘mass hysteria.'”

Ah, but the documentary invoked “chaos” to describe reactions to The War of the Worlds radio program. And as Getler noted in his critique, the documentary displayed “several banner newspaper headlines” published the day after 1938 dramatization. The effect was to suggest that the radio show had spread panic across the country.

Which assuredly it had not.

Those headlines made such declarations as:

  • “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact”
  • “Radio ‘Martian Attack’ Terrorizes U.S. Hearers, Thousands in Panic”WOW Newspaper
  • “Radio Fake Scares Nation”

And of course, PBS did claim in the documentary that “upwards of a million people” were convinced, if briefly, the country was under Martian attack — an estimate Samels in his comments said was taken from Hadley Cantril’s 1940 book, The Invasion From Mars.

But Cantril estimated that 1 million to 1.2 million people may have been “frightened” or “disturbed” or “excited” by what they heard. He did not exactly say those listeners were “convinced” the country was under Martian attack. And as I point out in Getting It Wrong, Cantril did not estimate how many listeners acted on their fear or excitement.

Being “frightened” or “disturbed” is hardly synonymous with being “panic-stricken.”

In any event, there are more recent and more discerning sources than Cantril’s problematic, 73-year-old book about The War of the Worlds program. But Samels and the documentary’s producer ignored those sources.

Another matter about the PBS documentary awaits Getler’s consideration.

This has to do with the program’s recreated dialog, in which actors dressed in period clothing gave voice to reactions that contemporaneous listeners of the radio program had described in letters.

One of the actors spoke the words of a “Sylvia Holmes” of Newark, New Jersey.

'Sylvia Holmes'

‘Sylvia Holmes’

“Holmes” was presented in the documentary as someone deeply frightened by the radio show.

But her remarks on the PBS documentary were drawn from Cantril’s 1940 book. As media historian Michael Socolow has pointed out, Cantril did not use real names in the book. Indeed, Cantril wrote:

“All names of respondents used in the text, are fictitious and identifying characteristics are disguised, but the true flavor of the case studies is preserved.”

So “Sylvia Holmes” is a pseudonym. And in a posting at Twitter that addressed Socolow’s point, PBS seemed to say it knew that. Left unclear, though, is why the documentary presented a fictitious name as if it were real.

PBS editorial standards say that programming “content should embrace the highest commitment to excellence, professionalism, intellectual honesty and transparency. In its news and information content, accuracy should be the cornerstone.”

In offering viewers the comments of the pseudonymous “Sylvia Holmes,” PBS may have skirted its cornerstone guidance.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

10 weeks on: Still no word from WaPo about apparent digital scrubbing of Lynch articles

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on July 6, 2012 at 7:45 am

Where’s the digital version?

The Washington Post ombudsman noted in a column last month that it is “increasingly difficult for iconoclastic, questioning voices to be heard, whether left, right or center.”

The ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, urged the Post and other news organizations “to seek out and cover the unconventional and outsider voices — whether citizen or expert, whether right, center or left. They’re out there; we just have to listen.”

Trouble is, Pexton, himself, doesn’t always much care for “questioning voices” — such as the questions that I’ve raised with him periodically for the past 10 weeks.

Those questions relate to the apparent digital scrubbing of the Post’s botched reporting about Jessica Lynch and her purported heroics early in the Iraq War.

The Post on April 3, 2003, published a stunning report on its front page (see above) about the supposed heroism of Lynch, a 19-year-old Army supply clerk, during an ambush at Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

The Post’s report said Lynch had fought fiercely and “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” in the fighting, which took place March 23, 2003.

The electrifying report — which the Post headlined “She was fighting to the death” — was picked up by news organizations around the world.

But soon it became apparent that the Post’s hero-warrior story was utterly wrong in all important details. Lynch never fired a shot in Iraq; she was neither shot nor stabbed, as the Post had reported, but badly injured in the crash of a Humvee as it fled the ambush.

The botched hero-warrior story is unavailable at the Post’s online site. Until a few weeks ago, clicking on a link to that report did turn up the story’s headline, byline, and publication detail. But otherwise, it was an empty link: It contained no content.

Now, not even the headline, byline, and publication date are available. The link opens to a page that declares in large headlines: “Page Not Found” and “We’re unable to locate the page you requested.”

So changes recently have been made that expunge any reference to the hero-warrior story.

I pointed this out in an email to Pexton a week ago. He has not replied.

In his most recent correspondence with me, an email sent May 30, Pexton wrote:

“This is a stickier problem than I initially thought. It could be as innocent as the Post has moved masses amount of files three times in the past ten years to different servers. Or it could be deliberate.  …  I have one newsroom employee researching this and an IT person checking on it. When I have an answer, I’ll let you know.”

Pexton turned prickly in that email, making clear he did not appreciate my turning to social media to call attention to this matter.

He expressed objections to the Twitter message I sent on May 25, calling attention to a blog post of the same day that four weeks had passed and the Post had offered no explanation for the apparent scrubbing of the Lynch  content.

“Tweeting about your frustration over the time it is taking is a disincentive for me to push harder on it,” Pexton wrote in his email of May 30. “Most readers are polite and understanding. Why should I put your request ahead of others when you choose to coerce and bully?”

Coerce and bully? C’mon. My inquiries about the Lynch stories are much more akin to the “questioning voices” that Pexton has encouraged the Post to seek out and embrace.

More than five weeks have since passed he sent that prickly email. Pexton has offered no explanation as to why the Lynch content has been excised from the Post’s online site.

“I will get an answer for you if it is obtainable and I will let you know when I do,” he wrote on May 30. “That’s the best I can do. If that’s not to your liking, then I apologize but that is your issue, not mine.”

Woah. It’s not important to him whether the Post has scrubbed digital reminders of an acutely embarrassing story?

The Post, after all, called out Vanity Fair in April for digitally scrubbing a flattering profile of the wife of  Bashar al-Asad, Syria’s dictator. At that time, the Post described Vogue’s removal of the digital version of the profile as “an almost-unheard-of step for a mainstream media organization.”

Interestingly, some Lynch-related content from 2003 remains freely available online — notably this article, at the Post’s link-rich Iraq War archive.

I’ve asked Pexton: Would the Post and its readers not be better served by being consistent about its Lynch-related content?

And I have suggested to him that “my request can be distilled thusly:

“Why is some Lynch-related content from 2003 freely available online (see here), while content more embarrassing to the Post (see empty links here, here, and here) not available? Shouldn’t those empty links be restored, and added to the Post’s link-rich Iraq War archive, where Lynch’s name and image already appear?”

He has given no direct responses to those questions.

So what’s to be concluded, 10 weeks after my initial inquiry to Pexton?

Not unlike Vanity Fair, the Post appears to have scrubbed the digital reminders of an embarrassing misstep, of a high-profile story that the newspaper got utterly wrong.

It’s also pretty clear the Post has no interest in making freely available online its botched reporting about Jessica Lynch.

It’s pretty clear, too, that Pexton doesn’t eagerly follow through on his rhetoric about the value and importance of “iconoclastic, questioning voices.”

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

Recent or related:

Four weeks on: No answer from WaPo about empty links to Jessica Lynch stories

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on May 25, 2012 at 6:55 am

Lynch photo at WaPo’s Iraq archive

Want to read the Washington Post article of April 10, 2003, about the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces? The article’s online link is here.

How about the Post’s report about the Iraqi lawyer who helped lead U.S. rescuers to Jessica Lynch, the Army private taken prisoner and hospitalized following a deadly ambush in the war’s early days? Here’s the link to that story,  which the Post published on its front page April 4, 2003.

How about the Post’s front-page article of the day before, which told of Lynch’s supposed heroism in the ambush, how she had fought fiercely and “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her”?

It was an electrifying report, one picked up by news organizations around the world.

But it turned out that the Post’s hero-warrior tale about Lynch was embarrassingly wrong in all important details. Lynch never fired a shot in Iraq; she was neither shot nor stabbed, as the Post had reported, but badly injured in the crash of a Humvee as it fled the ambush.

Try finding the botched hero-warrior story at the Post’s online site. All that turns up is a headline, byline, and date of publication. Otherwise, it’s an empty link. No content, in other words.

That’s also true for a column published April 20, 2003, by Michael Getler, the newspaper’s then-ombudsman, who criticized the hero-warrior story: Another empty, no-content link.

Same for the Post’s partial rollback of the hero-warrior story, published in mid-June 2003: Also an empty link.

So what gives? Why is some of the Post’s content about the Iraq War — and Jessica Lynch — freely available online while the more embarrassing material shows up as empty links?

Is this a matter of digital scrubbing, akin to Vogue magazine’s excising of a flattering profile of the wife of the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Asad? The Post last month described the Vogue matter as “an almost-unheard-of step for a mainstream media organization.”

Periodically over the past four weeks, I’ve asked the Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, about the digitally unavailable versions of the newspaper’s reports about Lynch.

Pexton has  promised to look into my questions.

But four weeks on, he has yet to offer a substantive reply.

I have asked him: “Does the embarrassment quotient explain this apparent inconsistency?” That is, is the Post too embarrassed by its botched reporting about Lynch to make the links freely available online?

I suspect it is.

In his most recent email to me, on May 16, Pexton said he receives “200 to 300 e-mails per day and we’re always behind. We are working on trying to get you some answers on this.”

I replied the following day, thanking him for the update and saying I hoped to hear from him soon.

I also wrote:

“I believe my request can be distilled thusly:

“Why is some Lynch-related content from 2003 freely available online (see here), while content more embarrassing to the Post (see empty links here, here, and here) not available? Shouldn’t those empty links be restored, and added to the Post’s link-rich Iraq War archive, where Lynch’s name and image already appear?”

That email produced no response from Pexton, however.

The Post‘s digital archive of the Iraq War offers a functioning link to the article about the Iraqi lawyer who helped guide rescuers to Lynch.

In fact, the only U.S. soldier identified by name and image at the archive is Jessica Lynch.

I discuss the Post’s reporting of the Lynch case in a chapter in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

WJC

Many thanks for Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Two weeks on: Still waiting for WaPo on missing Jessica Lynch online content

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on May 11, 2012 at 9:41 am

Lynch photo at WaPo’s Iraq archive

Two weeks ago, the Washington Post ombudsman promised to look into questions I had posed about the unavailable digital versions of the newspaper’s embarrassingly wrong reports about Jessica Lynch’s supposed heroics during the Iraq War.

I’m still waiting a response from the ombudsman, Patrick Pexton.

At issue are empty links for at least three articles and commentaries about Lynch that appeared in the Post in 2003 — all of which are keenly embarrassing to the newspaper. Among them is the Post’s infamous “Fighting to the Death” story of April 3, 2003, which is at the heart of the bogus hero-warrior tale about Lynch.

That story — which isn’t available at the Post’s online site — described Lynch’s purported derring-do on the battlefield, saying she fought fiercely in an ambush in Nasiriyah and was captured only after running out of ammunition.

As it turned out, the story was utterly wrong in all important details. Lynch never fired a shot in Iraq; she was neither shot nor stabbed, as the Post had reported, but badly injured in the crash of a Humvee as it fled the ambush. (I discuss the Post’s handling of the Lynch case in a chapter in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.)

Another element of the Post’s narrative about Lynch that’s missing online is a column written several days later by Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman. Getler criticized the hero-warrior story, noting that readers thought it suspicious.

In mid-June 2003, the Post grudgingly walked back from aspects of its hero-warrior tale — an embarrassment that media critic Christopher Hansen characterized as “the journalistic equivalent of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.”

The Post’s walk-back article also is unavailable online.

But at least one of the Post’s  stories about Lynch in 2003 is freely available online, as I’ve noted in email messages to Pexton.

That article — which is decidedly non-embarrassing to the Post – was published April 4, 2003; there’s a functioning link to it at the newspaper’s link-rich digital archive about the Iraq War. Interestingly, the only U.S. soldier identified by name and image at the archive site is Jessica Lynch.

So why aren’t the Post’s other reports about Lynch available at that online archive? If some Lynch-related content from 2003 is freely available, why not the rest? Wouldn’t restoring all Lynch content make the digital archive richer, more comprehensive, and more balanced?

I believe it would.

I’ve asked Pexton: “Does the embarrassment quotient explain this apparent inconsistency?” In other words, is the Post too embarrassed by its botched reporting about Lynch to make the links freely available online?

I suspect so.

Pexton did say in an email 14 days ago that his looking into my questions “will take some considerable time to research, but I’ll check into it. It’s very hard to trace some of this back when The Post has gone through several computer systems since that time, but I’ll make an effort.”

In reply, I suggested that the matter could be readily distilled by focusing on this question:

“Why is some Lynch-related content from 2003 freely available online (see here), while other and more embarrassing content (see empty links here, here, and here) not available?”

I sent Pexton follow-up email messages on May 1 and May 7. In those email, I asked why the empty links about the Lynch case couldn’t be restored and added to the digital archive about the Iraq War.

I have received no reply.

And that’s a bit odd because Pexton, in a column in March, pointedly urged Post staffers to be responsive to inquiries, writing:

“Return the blessed phone calls and e-mails from readers! And do it with courtesy, respect and politeness, even when the caller, or writer, is persistent or even unpleasant. Please.”

That’s advice too good to be ignored.

WJC

Recent and related:

No ‘rock-em,’ no ‘sock-em': What ails WaPo

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 7, 2011 at 1:59 am

The ombudsman of the Washington Post, Patrick Pexton, weighs in today with platitudes and hang-wringing about the newspaper. He mostly misses the mark.

Pexton writes in his column that the Post’s “future lies not with the rich; it lies with the citizenry.

“This newspaper must be the one source of high-quality, probing Washington news that readers in this region and across the country can look to for holding their government accountable. This publication must be for all Americans.”

Oh, brother.

But wait: Here’s more vague abstraction:

“The Post,” Pexton writes, “can’t be a liberal publication or a conservative one. It must be hard-hitting, scrappy and questioning — skeptical of all political figures and parties and beholden to no one. It has to be the rock-’em-sock-’em organization that is passionate about the news. It needs to be less bloodless and take more risks when chasing the story and the truth.”

A “rock-’em-sock-’em organization,” eh? Well, that’s useful guidance.

In his five or so months as ombudsman, Pexton hasn’t dared touch the electrified third rail about the Post, which one of his predecessors, Deborah Howell, gamely if belatedly addressed.

That’s a decided lack of intellectual diversity in the Post’s newsroom. In mid-November 2008, shortly after Barack Obama was elected president, Howell wrote in her ombudsman column:

“I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

Howell’s column quoted Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism as saying that “conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

In Obama's thrall

The lack of intellectual diversity often shows in the Post’s report. Even casual reading signals that the newspaper remains in the thrall of Obama, despite his clearly failing presidency.

Obama scarcely gets “rock-’em-sock-’em” treatment from the Post.

Last Wednesday, for example, the Post’s once-edgy “Style” section devoted most of its front page to a cheery feature about the meaning of Obama’s turning 50-years-old.

“On Thursday,” the article gushed, “President Obama — one of American history’s most precocious achievers — joins the ranks of Washington 50-somethings ….”

But what ails the Post goes well beyond its routinely tender treatment of Obama.

The Post’s local report is superficial, a diet of eye-rolling, feel-good features. The newspaper carries little staff-produced national coverage. Its international report is undistinguished, especially compared to that of the New York Times.

Moreover, the Post offers few notable cases of investigative journalism any more.

It has won two Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting in 25 years, which has to be considered meager for a newspaper that reputedly brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency with its relentless digging into the Watergate scandal.

But as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the Post-Watergate trope, of course, is a powerful media-driven myth.

I’d be remiss were I to fail to note that the Post never has come clean about how it erred so utterly in offering the world the bogus hero-warrior tale about Jessica Lynch in the early days of the Iraq War.

Lynch, the Post reported on its front page on April 3, 2003, “fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed the Army’s 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition, U.S. officials said yesterday.”

But none of the derring-do attributed to Lynch was true, and the Post has never explained who led it so badly astray.

Moreover, the staff cuts and buyouts of recent years left few notable characters on the newspaper’s staff.

Gone are such colorful figures as the erudite and pugnacious Henry Allen, a Pulitzer winner who left the Post after throwing punches at a staff writer who called him a c—sucker.

Now there was “rock-’em-sock-’em,” old school variety.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

Recent and related:

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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