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."
Not all media were so quick to follow the Post's lead. Says Newsday's Craig Gordon, who was reporting from Doha, "It didn't pass the smell test. She's a 19-year-old supply clerk, and they made her sound like Rambo. I had no way to check it, and it didn't ring true." The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Newsweek also did not run stories about Lynch's heroic fight.
In truth, reporters covering the war were in a tough spot. Everyone interviewed for this story said it was impossible to confirm the Lynch story's details with anyone outside the government in those first days. "No reporters witnessed it," says Gordon. "It was frustrating." New York Times spokesman Toby Usnik said the paper "gave as full an account as possible." Paul Slavin, senior vice president of ABC News, says: "As with many stories, we were left with our sourcing being other government agencies. The whole war was characterized by reporting through straws. There were thirty tiny visions of what was going on on that battlefield at any time." Even reporters critical of the American coverage, such as Richard Lloyd Parry, who wrote one of the first stories about the rescue from the Iraqi doctors' perspective for the Times of London, says, "The telephones were down. American and Iraqi forces were still fighting over Nasiriyah. It would have been several days before anyone could make a sensible decision to go in there and check it out."
Still, many journalists say that news organizations should have acknowledged just how little they actually knew. The American news media "could have framed it in a way which distanced the source," notes Parry. "Which is what they did with all Iraqi sources. Why should we assume that what Donald Rumsfeld is saying is more reliable than what Iraqi sources are saying?" The Post's Loeb says, "We had three sources that she was fighting back," for the April 3 story. "They told us what was in their intelligence reports." But that was three different government officials confirming the substance of the same reports.
By now, of course, it's become clear that the story that government officials told reporters of Lynch's capture and the "daring" rescue was far from accurate. She did not fire her weapon, and she was neither shot nor stabbed. And according to news reports since mid-April from the BBC, the Times of London, the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post and others, Iraqi doctors at the hospital where Lynch was being treated report that Iraqi fighters had already abandoned the hospital and that hospital staff had even tried to return her to American forces well before the Special Forces swooped in. It was "like a Hollywood film," Dr. Harith al-Houssona, a physician at the hospital, told the BBC in a May 18 broadcast. "They shout, 'Go, go, go!', with guns and blanks...and the sound of explosions. They make a show...action moves like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan...with jumping and shouting, breaking the door." And contrary to US reports that Lynch had been mistreated, hospital staff said they'd treated her as well as possible under wartime conditions.
To be sure, the reports from Nasiriya have conflicted as well. Keith Richburg of the Washington Post reported on April 14 that Iraqi doctors had told him the Iraqi military forces had fled the hospital on the morning of the Lynch raid, which suggests US forces might not have been sure they were gone. But by the time the BBC went to Nasiriya, witnesses told the network that special forces knew the Iraqi military had left the day before the rescue mission. But even if those facts remain unclear, there's little doubt that the US military offered up a version of the story that made Lynch and her rescuers look most heroic. "The American military obviously saw immediately what a great PR stunt this was. They played it for all it was worth," says Alan Hamilton, who co-wrote the London Times's initial story on the Lynch rescue.
Why were the American media so easily misled?
Although reporters won't say their editors pressured them into blowing up the story, it was clear that good war news was selling better. Fox News, which kept an American flag on its screen throughout the war and adopted the military's propagandistic war slogan "Operation Iraqi Freedom" as its own official news banner, was drawing more viewers than any other cable news channel. Slavin notes that when ABC finally went back in May to report on how the rescue looked to the hospital staff, "we got hundreds of calls complaining that we were undercutting the military."
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."