Media Myth-Making in the Iraq War
The story of Jessica Lynch's rescue was one of the most covered story lines during the war in Iraq. The young soldier from West Virginia was held up as an icon of the strength and spirit of the American volunteer soldier. Her rescue mission was called a daring, made-for-Hollywood story. In recent weeks, however, the stories about Lynch's capture, her time spent captive, and her rescue have been questioned. Many claim that the original reports were filled with inaccuracies that benefited the US government by creating positive feelings about the war. Below is a detailed chronology of the major stories in the evolution of the Lynch saga.
This chronology and analysis was prepared for PEJ by journalist Dante Chinni.The Backstory
How the Story Developed
A Day-by-Day Look at the Story's Changes
Into this mix came an extremely heartening bit of news. On April 1, Private first class Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old army maintenance worker who had been captured in an Iraqi ambush on March 23, was rescued from Saddam Hospital. In a night raid special operations forces entered the hospital and removed Lynch who was taken to a nearby helicopter and flown to safety. The story was heralded on front pages and newscasts across the country. And a picture of Lynch, looking tired, but grateful lying on a stretcher with a folded American flag draped over her, flooded the airwaves.
How the Story Developed
That story appears to be the genesis of a spate of stories that accepted the Post sequence of events. Many articles focused on the Rambo-like firefight Lynch reportedly engaged in -- some even cited her valiant fighting as proof that women belonged in combat zones. Some stories went further saying she had been abused or denied basic care by the Iraqis who captured and tended to her. Several accounts said she had been "saved" by a courageous Iraqi lawyer named Mohammed Rehaief who risked his life to tell US troops where Lynch was.
Within days, conflicting accounts began to appear simultaneously. Some wire and newspaper accounts went with the Post account and alleged Lynch had been shot and stabbed and cited unnamed surgeons who had cared for her or family members. Other stories denied that she had been shot or stabbed. Those stories cited a specific person, the commander of the hospital in Landstuhl, Germany where Lynch was treated. Interestingly though, given the choice between the two stories, many news organizations chose the more theatric set of circumstances, even though the other version of events had better sourcing. For instance, the April 14 Newsweek, which made Lynch its cover subject, said how Lynch was injured remained a mystery and briefly reported that the hospital said she had not been stabbed or shot. But in the next sentence, the magazine reported that "Later that day, though, surgeons discovered she had been shot -- and according to family spokesperson in West Virginia, Dan Little, her wounds were 'consistent with low-velocity small arms.'" The magazine then went on for two paragraphs outlining what might have happened to her.
On April 15, a Washington Post story questioned the paper's own earlier account. On April 27 a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story called into question many of the stories from the war, including those around Lynch. And on May 4 the Toronto Star essentially laid out the entire revised account of the Lynch saga after a series of interviews with the hosptial staff where Lynch was treated in Iraq. Still, despite these pieces, the early version of the Lynch story dominated until the UK newspaper The Guardian published a lengthy deconstruction of the Lynch story written by a BBC reporter on May 15. On May 18, the BBC aired a documentary on which the Guardian article was based, reviewing the incident in depth. The BBC account began to raise questions in the American press.
On June 17, the Washington Post ran a story refuting much of what appeared in its April 3 story. Though the new piece still relied heavily on unnamed US officials, it maintained that Lynch was not stabbed or shot, that she had not killed any Iraqis because of a gun jam, and that the hospital US forces raided was unguarded.
The one thing that can be taken away from the coverage of the Lynch story is that when the media are hungry for a story and given conflicting accounts they will more likely latch on to the more sensational version of events.
The story breaks
The wounds become gunshot wounds
-- An Associated Press roundup story mentions Lynch in the final paragraphs. "Officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said she was suffering from broken legs, a broken arm and at least one gunshot wound."
Lynch as female Rambo
-- The (NY) Daily News reports that, "Jessica was being tortured. That was the urgent word from an Iraqi man who alerted American troops where to find Pfc. Jessica Lynch - and her injuries seem to bear out the allegation. ... Her broken bones are a telltale sign of torture, said Amy Waters Yarsinske, a former Navy intelligence officer and an expert on POW and MIA treatment. 'It's awfully hard to break both legs and an arm in a truck accident,' Yarsinske said.
-- The Los Angeles Times reports Lynch was "flown to a US military hospital at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where she was reported to be in stable condition, recovering from injuries said to include broken legs, a broken arm and at least one gunshot wound."
-- But later that day, a different AP story reports that:
These two conflicting accounts would go on to give the story of Lynch's wounds new life.
-- The New York Times in a story on TV coverage of the war reports that, "Pfc. Jessica Lynch shifted overnight from victim to teenage Rambo: all the cable news shows ran with a report from The Washington Post that the 19-year-old P.O.W. had been shot and stabbed yet still kept firing at enemy soldiers. … Later yesterday, her father said she had not been shot or stabbed."
Enter the Iraqi lawyer who saved her life
April 5. An AP story reports that there is mystery about how Lynch was injured, but deep in the piece says, "Lynch's family in West Virginia said doctors had determined she'd been shot. They found two entry and exit wounds 'consistent with low-velocity, small-caliber rounds,' said her mother, Deadra Lynch."
The story begins to grow
April 10. The New Orleans Times-Picayune runs a piece about Lynch's boot camp friend that pushes the boundaries of Lynch's experience further. "When she heard that Pfc. Jessica Lynch survived being shot, beaten, then left for dead in Nasiriyah by Iraqi soldiers who had killed eight of her fellow soldiers, Pfc. Marcia Wright of New Orleans believed every word."
The questioning of what actually happened begins
April 18. An AP story begins to back off some of the earlier accounts of Lynch's story. The AP report says the Washington Post story on the Lynch gunfight, "has not been confirmed, military officials said Friday."
April 20. The Washington Post runs a column by Ombudsman Michael Getler outlining the confusion and conflicting accounts behind the story. "My initial reaction, even before the comments of Rubenstein (the head of the hospital where Lynch was taken in Germany) and Lynch's father, was that a more qualified approach in the headline and the lead of the story was merited because of the cautions in the article and because of the thin sourcing used."
April 27. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch runs a long piece looking at the stories that the media got wrong in Iraq, including a large section on Lynch:
May 4. The Toronto Star runs a 1,500-word piece on the Lynch rescue strongly questioning the accepted account:
The reconsideration of the story picks up steam
May 18. The BBC runs a documentary on the Lynch's capture and rescue. Based on the Guardian story, it reiterates its charges and creates a more serious round of questioning about what really happened to Lynch.
May 19. On his website journalist Andrew Sullivan attacks the BBC piece on his website. "Meanwhile, the latest BBC smear is against Private Jessica Lynch. Glenn has the goods. I remember the reporter, John Kampfner, from my Oxford days. He was a unreconstructed far-lefty. No doubt these days he's a reconstructed one."
May 23. The Washington Post runs a piece by ombudsman Michael Getler about the New York Times and Jayson Blair with a few paragraphs about the Lynch story and the Post:
May 26. The Chicago Tribune runs a piece that reexamines the Lynch story. The paper sent staff back to Nasiriyah to look at the story from the ground up. Its conclusion: There was hyperbole on both sides of the story (the Lynch-as-hero and the Lynch-as-propaganda side). But the story says the Lynch saga is "the story of how a modern war icon is made and perhaps how easily journalists with different agendas accepted contradictory self-serving versions of what happened to her."
On June 10, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer does a segment looking at "whether the American media too willingly accepted the story of the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch as presented by the Pentagon."
June 17. In a lengthy front-page story, the Washington Post prints an investigation of its own April 3 story on Lynch. The new story finds:
-- That afternoon, CNN airs stories that essentially recount the Post's story. "According to the accounts that are now coming to light at the Pentagon, Private First Class Jessica Lynch got some very decent medical attention from the Iraqi doctors at the hospital in An- Nasariyah, where she was taken. … [I]t appears that all of her injuries were from that portion of the incident, that she did not suffer gunshot or stab wounds but rather very serious concussion fractures, if you will, from this incident."