The Press and Private Lynch
CNN, even ten days later, was still describing the story based purely on the military's version. In its recap of "The Rescue of Private Lynch," CNN took "a very personal look at a very brave young soldier." CNN anchor Anderson Cooper said with a straight face: "To many, Private Lynch, her daring rescue and her return have come to symbolize the qualities the US military holds highest: loyalty, endurance and daring."
Many American news organizations eventually made efforts to correct, or at least to flesh out, the Lynch rescue story. On April 14, Richburg reported the Iraqi doctors' view of the rescue in the Post. About a week later, the New York Times's Alan Feuer did a similar story, and AP, CNN and some of the networks did follow-ups as well.
But until the Washington Post finally ran a major piece on June 17, in effect taking back much of its initial reporting, none of those stories got anywhere near the play the first ones did. Ed Cody, at the time the Post's deputy foreign editor, originally brushed off suggestions that the Post ought not to have buried its first, limited follow-up story on A-17. "That's just the way things work," Cody said. "No one looked at that story and said, 'We had the dramatic rescue story on page one, shouldn't this be on page one too?'" Calls to Post editors involved in the June 17 story were not returned.
The fact is, Jessica Lynch as war hero sells. As the New York Times recently reported, the media giants have been fighting over an exclusive interview with Lynch since she arrived in a US military hospital; CBS has pitched her a stunning package of TV documentary, entertainment and book projects that would surely earn huge profits for the Viacom empire.
Almost thirty years ago Phillip Knightley chronicled in The First Casualty how journalists get duped into spreading the government's propaganda. At least during Vietnam, the media eventually grew skeptical. But in today's quick, high-tech wars, there's little time for the seeds of dissent to sprout, and the media seem eager to please a patriotic public. It's no coincidence that the name "Jessica Lynch" is much more recognizable in the United States than Ali Abbas, the 12-year-old Iraqi boy who lost both arms in the bombing of Baghdad, or even Lori Ann Piestewa, the first American female soldier killed in Iraq.
It's predictable that the war's architects would prefer that the public associate the war with the image of a valiant American heroine and the soldiers who risked their lives to save her. But it's disturbing that American media encourage it. While the BBC's story was a scathing indictment of the military's deliberate spin tactics--the BBC's John Kampfner called it "one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived"--the American stories have generally been subdued. When Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer criticized the Pentagon's spin job, he was roundly attacked as unpatriotic by Fox's Bill O'Reilly. The New York Times assigned its analysis of the inaccuracies of the original Lynch story to military favorite Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, whose prominent Times piece excused the military's spin as a normal part of "the fog of war," and the media's heroic embellishments as "what daily journalism does."
That lets American news organizations off the hook far too easily. And as the Times of London's Richard Lloyd Parry notes, it explains why the military spun the story so crudely in the first place. "Whatever further embarrassment and loss of credibility the coalition experiences now as a result of the truth coming out, the benefits they reaped at the time far surpass that. So on balance, from their point of view, they did the right thing."