W. Joseph Campbell

‘Question everything you see, read or hear’ — including narratives about military, Jessica Lynch

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on May 30, 2016 at 2:44 am

“Question everything you see, read or hear.

“Test it. Analyze it. Prove it.”

That’s useful if time-worn advice for journalists, even if they are not always inclined to embrace such guidance. The reminders were offered up over the weekend in a column in the Statesman Journal of Salem, Oregon.

Lynch_headline_PostIt wasn’t the advice that interested Media Myth Alert; it was the column’s reference to the hero-warrior myth about Jessica Lynch.

The column-writer, Dick Hughes, who is the newspaper’s editorial page editor, invoked the Lynch case in making the point about the importance of questioning everything. In doing so, Hughes stumbled over his own well-intentioned advice.

“Recall,” he wrote, “how George W. Bush’s military, early in the Iraq War, converted soldier Jessica Lynch into a hero for valiantly fighting her ambushers until being taken captive. The national media bought that compelling line, despite what I thought were disconcerting holes in it.”

Had Hughes challenged or questioned the claim about the military’s having concocted the tale about Lynch’s battlefield heroics, he would have determined that it was a false narrative.Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 1.15.45 PM

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the military did not push the tale of Lynch fighting her attackers: That narrative was thrust into the public domain exclusively by the Washington Post.

In an electrifying, front-page article on April 3, 2003, the Post reported that Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her Army unit in Nasariyah, in southern Iraq, “firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her….”

Above the dramatic account — which the Post vaguely attributed to “U.S. officials” — ran the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.’”

As it turned out, the Post’s “fighting-to-the-death” story was wrong in all important details.

Lynch never fired a shot during the ambush; her weapon jammed. She suffered no gunshot wounds but was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee, as she and four comrades of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, tried to escape the attack. The others were killed; Lynch was taken prisoner and moved to an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until rescued by a U.S. special forces team on April 1, 2003.

Two days later, the Post  published its report about Lynch’s heroics. The newspaper has never disclosed the identity of the “U.S. officials” to whom it attributed the bogus account about Lynch.

We do know, however, that “George W. Bush’s military” was not pushing the story: We know this from Vernon Loeb, then the Post’s defense correspondent who shared a byline with Susan Schmidt on the hero-warrior story about Lynch. No journalist was with Lynch’s unit in the attack; Loeb and Schmidt reported the story from Washington.

As I noted in  Getting It Wrong, Loeb went on NPR’s Fresh Air program in December 2003 and stated, unequivocally:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.” Rather, Loeb said, they were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington.

Loeb also asserted in the NPR interview that Pentagon officials “wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

He dismissed the interviewer’s suggestion that the Post’s “fighting to the death” report was the consequence of the Pentagon’s cynical manipulation.

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none,” said Loeb, who nowadays is managing editor at the Houston Chronicle. “I mean … they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

On another occasion, Loeb was quoted by the New York Times as saying:

“Far from promoting stories about Lynch, the military didn’t like the story.” (In addition, Victoria Clarke, then a Pentagon spokeswoman, told the Associated Press in June 2003: “We were downplaying [the Lynch story]. We weren’t hyping it.” The article Loeb and Schmidt wrote about Lynch included this passage: “Pentagon officials said they had heard ‘rumors’ of Lynch’s heroics but had no confirmation.”)

Seldom do Loeb’s disclaimers find their way into articles, columns, blog posts, and other media discussions about the Lynch case. It’s much easier — and makes for a better story — to embrace the false narrative about the military’s supposed duplicity.

If the military hadginned up” the hero-warrior story about Lynch, “it failed miserably in keeping the ruse from unraveling,” I pointed out in Getting It Wrong. The day after the Post’s “‘fighting to the death’” article was published, the head of the Army hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, told reporters that Lynch had been neither shot nor stabbed – undercutting central elements of the hero-warrior tale.

In his column, Hughes does allude to the confusion that surrounded Lynch’s supposed heroics at Nasiriyah. “All signs now point to the real hero in the ambush being Sgt. Donald Walters, who grew up in Salem. He gave his life while returning fire and protecting his comrades,” Hughes writes.

Indeed, the derring-do misattributed to Lynch probably were the heroics of Donald Walters, a sergeant-cook in the 507th who was captured after his ammunition ran out, taken prisoner, and executed soon after.

WJC

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