The Press and Private Lynch
In the wee hours of April 2, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks summoned reporters from their hotel rooms in Doha, Qatar, for a special press briefing at the Coalition Media Center. "Coalition forces have conducted a successful rescue mission of a US Army prisoner of war held captive in Iraq," the Central Command spokesperson told reporters. "The soldier has been returned to a coalition-controlled area."
That was about all that was said initially about the rescue of 19-year-old POW Jessica Lynch. Since the opening of the war, the Central Command briefings had given reporters almost nothing, and at first it seemed this story would be more of the same. At the next morning's regular press briefing, military officials didn't even bring it up. But as if on cue, CNN correspondent Tom Mintier, the first reporter called on, piped up: "General Brooks, we noticed that you made no mention of the rescue of Jessica Lynch and the special operations that went on. We understand that there is video taken by a combat camera team. Can you show us that video?"
With that, Brooks began to tell the story that would come to be known as Saving Private Lynch. Special ops had successfully retrieved Lynch, "bringing her away from that location of danger" and had withstood "firefights outside of the building, getting in and getting out.... At this point she is safe. She's been retrieved and some brave souls put their lives on the line to make this happen, loyal to a creed that they know that they will never leave a fallen comrade and never embarrass their country. The next question?"
Although Mintier and CNN refuse to discuss it, reporters in Doha at the time say the question seemed to have been prompted. "That was the scuttlebutt," says one reporter from a major American daily. "It certainly seemed part of the show."
If it was, it was staged perfectly. Within hours, news organizations blew up the few facts on offer into the story of a "daring raid" in "hostile territory." The Los Angeles Times reported that US Special Forces endured a "blaze of gunfire" at the hospital. The New York Times's first story was cautious, but its second reported that "the rescue team took fire from buildings within the compound, but the troops fired back and quickly made their way into the hospital." On television, the Army's grainy footage of Lynch being carried out of the Iraqi hospital on a stretcher and whisked into a waiting Black Hawk helicopter was played over and over, and became an enduring image of the war. CNN reported that US forces had made a "forced entry into the hospital." On Fox, Lynch quickly became "America's hero."
For the US military, the story of Private Lynch arrived just in time. For days, all reporters covering the war had been able to give their editors was a slew of bad news. By the end of March, US forces had been stymied by unexpectedly fierce fighting in the south, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was facing harsh criticism for not having deployed sufficient ground troops to overcome the Iraqi resistance. US troops had just killed a van full of Iraqi women and children, and American forces had lost four Marines in a helicopter crash. The Lynch rescue was finally some good news. And it seemed to quickly get even better.
By the second day, the Washington Post was reporting that the West Virginia supply clerk who aspired to be a kindergarten teacher had fought back fiercely against her captors. In a front-page story, headlined "She Was Fighting to the Death," reporters Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb cited anonymous US officials as saying Lynch "fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers" after Iraqi soldiers ambushed her supply team, "firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition." The story soon led television and radio broadcasts: On NBC, Forrest Sawyer reported that "Lynch continued firing at Iraqi troops even after she was wounded," while Robin Roberts on ABC's Good Morning America announced that Lynch "fought fiercely," "shooting several Iraqis" and "emptying her weapon before being stabbed and finally taken prisoner." Although they all credited the Post, none of the networks made any reference to the fact that the Post itself acknowledged it was citing "rumors."