“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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 had “ginned 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.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Why WaPo should identify sources on bogus Jessica Lynch tale
- Recalling the hero of Nasiriyah: It wasn’t Jessica Lynch
- False narrative about Jessica Lynch and Pentagon surfaces anew
- False narrative accompanies Jessica Lynch to Idaho
- Maddow wrongly declares Pentagon ‘made up’ bogus tale about Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics
- Jon Krakauer rolls back claims about WaPo ‘source’ in Jessica Lynch case
- Lynch heroics not ‘the Pentagon’s story’; it was WaPo’s
- Washington Post ignores its singular role in Lynch hero-warrior story
- WaPo eludes responsibility in bogus hero-warrior tale about Lynch
- WaPo, Bezos, and owning up to errors ‘quickly and completely’
- WaPo now drinking the Watergate Kool-Aid?
- A subsidiary myth: Lynch rescue ‘was play-acted’
- Jessica Lynch: One of the ‘buzziest’?
- ‘Commentary’ reviews ‘Getting It Wrong’