There’s nothing like a good war story — except perhaps when it isn’t true.
The New York Times got its reminder in the person of Jayson Blair, the reporter who fabricated some too-good-to-be-true accounts, including an imagined encounter with the family of Private Jessica Lynch.
But Blair’s in good company when it comes to embellishing the narrative of Lynch, the POW who was famously rescued from an Iraqi hospital.
The early-April deliverance of Private Lynch, it turns out, was less glorious than advertised. There was no actual combat, say witnesses, and Lynch was largely well treated. The blame for the apparent misrepresentations falls squarely on the American government and a willingly gullible and inattentive media. The BBC demythologized the Lynch rescue in a special report last weekend. Doubts about the “daring commando raid” first surfaced more than a month ago.
The real story of the rescue remains a tale of daring and risk, undertaken with the worthy aim of removing a captured soldier from the potentially perilous custody of a brutal regime. But the transformation of “good facts” into great ones is both maddening and manipulative. And it’s entirely consistent with the Bush administration’s modus operandi regarding “finds” of weapons of mass destruction. These finds get banner coverage, only to be followed by a muted recanting, which gets similarly muted attention in most of the press.
To be sure, Lynch underwent a terrible ordeal. No credible sources contest that Lynch’s supply column was ambushed and that nine soldiers were killed while she and others were captured. As originally told, however, Lynch was taken only after furious resistance. Lynch, wrote the Washington Post, “fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers . . . firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition.” The Page 1 report quoted unnamed “U.S. officials” as sources, adding that Lynch “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting March 23.”
It has since come out that her injuries likely occurred in a truck accident at the time of the ambush. Lynch — who has given no interviews — has made no reported claim through her doctors or her family of battlefield heroics. Army doctors recently stated that Lynch has no memory of the ambush. The sourcing of the original battlefield description is especially suspect given that the other captured members of her unit were not freed until more than a week after Lynch’s rescue.
Early accounts also talked of her brutal treatment. “POW JESSICA WAS TORTURED,” screamed an April 3 headline in the New York Post, which elaborated: “In one hospital room, Marines discovered a large car battery next to a bed — a possible electrical shock torture chamber.”
There’s been no confirmation of this either, though it’s possible some of Lynch’s captors mistreated her. Even gung-ho Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declined to hype the torture angle when pressed on the issue. Of course, he didn’t deny it either.
Then there was the heroic rescue itself. To create a diversion, said the New York Daily News, “Marines began blasting” the local Ba’ath party headquarters, “the home of a local party leader and a communications target.” The decoy attack “scrambled some of the enemy, creating the opening needed to swarm the hospital.”
Then, according to the Los Angeles Times, “Under cover of darkness, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs and Marines landed a Black Hawk helicopter in the courtyard of the hospital, shot their way into the building under heavy fire and moved to the room where Lynch lay.”
The Daily News had soldiers “ducking gunfire from the Iraqis ringing the hospital as they raced toward their target.”
A Fox News correspondent talked of “hostility all around . . . in the form of these Iraqi paramilitary thugs trying to shoot at coalition forces.”
It was quite a scene all right — except that Iraqi witnesses insist that Iraqi soldiers had already deserted the area by the night of April 1. In the BBC report, they say there was no opposition whatsoever. The BBC investigation also speaks of Lynch getting decent medical care, even special treatment not available for wounded Iraqis. BBC reporters also allege that Americans knew beforehand they would not come under fire.
The only shooting would be done by the Americans themselves — and that includes the shooting of video footage by a combat film crew brought along to record the derring-do. This edited footage was shown with great aplomb the next day, keeping the story at the top of the broadcast cycle for at least another day. The BBC asked to see the raw, unedited footage. Government officials denied the request. Federal transcripts show that General Vincent Brooks’ official briefing spoke of “firefights outside of the building, getting in and getting out.”
The BBC counterclaim is credible in part because its findings are not truly revelations. The Washington Post, for one, revisited the story on April 15 — a good thing, too, because its guns-ablazing portrayal of a Rambo-like Lynch had all the earmarks of a planted, unverifiable story, which the Post rushed into print to scoop the competition. The follow-up scoop, however, ran on Page A17, not A1.
The L.A. Times was silent until this week, when the indomitable Robert Scheer took on the issue. But Scheer, though based at the L.A. Times, is a syndicated columnist, which begs the question of what happened to the paper’s precision news coverage.
And forget about the New York tabloids, most of the rest of the nation’s press and the Fox News Network. For them, it was on to the government’s next press conference. Only the international press covered the story as though it actually matters whether the American government is telling the truth. Recent government accounts still refer to a daring rescue, but no longer claim that troops were under fire. And soldiers who participated are now telling their hometown newspapers that they’re not allowed to comment on the operation.
Jayson Blair’s fabrications got him fired and tarnished the reputation of one of the nation’s top newspapers. The government’s fibs had a more profound effect — helping to shift what was then a negative trend in the war reporting. The rescue came as critics were questioning whether the U.S. had enough troops and firepower in the region or whether it was using the right strategy. All of a sudden, papers ran post-Lynch stories such as “Some Marines Involved in Rescue Had Yuma Ties” and “Ontario Company’s Product Played a Part in Rescue of Injured U.S. POW in Iraq.” Even the circumspect Christian Science Monitor headlined the Lynch affair as “Rescue for a Soldier — and Nation.” The Dow leaped ahead 215 points and the Nasdaq shot up 3.6 percent in the rosy afterglow.
For the broadcast networks it was rescue in the form of high ratings.
They couldn’t get enough of the most exciting account. And why stop now? There’s already talk of the Jessica Lynch movie. Wonder which version of the tale they’ll use?
Maybe there’s hope for Blair, too. A TV movie perhaps, about how he, too, snookered the press. After all, everyone loves a good story.