Jessica Lynch

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
An Assessment
A Day-by-Day Look at the Story's Changes

The Backstory
Not quite two weeks into the war in Iraq, some of the media's coverage of the fighting had taken a negative turn. In the newspapers and on television, experts were beginning to question whether the United States had sent sufficient manpower to handle the Iraqis, who were fighting harder and more cagily than expected. So were some senior commanders in the field. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld complained about media "mood swings." Peter Arnett, who was appearing on NBC and MSNBC, went on Iraqi television and claimed the US had underestimated the forces they were up against and were having to redraw their battle plans.

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
In the early evening of April 1, the night of the rescue, the 24-hour news networks broke in with a briefing from US CENTCOM in which it was revealed that the military had rescued a "U.S. Army prisoner of war held captive in Iraq." In the days and weeks following Lynch's rescue, stories about how she was captured and what happened after her capture began to circulate. The day after the rescue, April 2, the Associated Press quoted "officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity" who said Lynch had "at least one gunshot wound." That same day the New York Times cited "an Army official" as saying that Lynch "had been shot multiple times." On April 3, a front-page story in the Washington Post cited unnamed US officials and said that Lynch "fought fiercely" and that she sustained gunshot and stab wounds. "She was fighting to the death," the official was quoted as saying in the story. "She did not want to be taken alive."

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.

An Assessment
Nearly two months after her capture much is still open to speculation. But some specifics have become clear. Lynch was never shot or stabbed, according to the military. For whatever reason, possibly a gun jam, the military says she did not engage in a pitched battle with the Iraqis -- though it has not been made clear how anyone would know this since all those driving with Lynch died in the ambush. The Iraqis that had been guarding the hospital holding Lynch had in fact left, meaning that special forces troops who went in did not face any significant resistance when they arrived to extract her. Mohammed Rehaief's exact role is still unclear. US troops verified that he came to them with the information on Lynch, but his story that a man dressed in black interrogated and slapped Lynch was refuted by hospital staff. Furthermore, while Rehaief claims he was in the hospital to visit his wife Iman who is a nurse, other hospital staffers say there is no nurse married to a lawyer or named Iman who works there.

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.


A Day-by-day Look at the Story's Changes

The story breaks
April 1, 2003. An Associated Press story reports that Lynch has been rescued and says that an army spokesman "did not know whether Lynch had been wounded or when she might return to the United States."

The wounds become gunshot wounds
April 2. The New York Times runs a story on the celebrations in Lynch's hometown and reports that, "Details of what happened to Private Lynch were scarce. An Army official said Tuesday night that Private Lynch had been shot multiple times. The official said that it had not been determined whether she was shot during the rescue attempt or before it."

-- 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
April 3. The day after it's initial story, the Washington Post runs a story, "'She Was Fighting to the Death'; Details Emerging of W. Va. Soldier's Capture and Rescue," that recounts Lynch's ordeal. The account is reprinted in other newspapers.

"Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk, 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, one official said. The ambush took place after a 507th convoy, supporting the advancing 3rd Infantry Division, took a wrong turn near the southern city of Nasiriyah.

'She was fighting to the death,' the official said. 'She did not want to be taken alive.'

Lynch was also stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in on her position, the official said, noting that initial intelligence reports indicated that she had been stabbed to death…

Several officials cautioned that the precise sequence of events is still being determined, and that further information will emerge as Lynch is debriefed. Reports thus far are based on battlefield intelligence, they said, which comes from monitored communications and from Iraqi sources in An Nasiriyah whose reliability has yet to be assessed."

-- 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."


Questions arise about her wounds
April 4. The Associated Press reports that doctors told Lynch's father, "she had not been shot or stabbed during her ordeal. 'We have heard and seen reports that she had multiple gunshot wounds and a knife stabbing. The doctor has not seen any of this,' Gregory Lynch Sr. said."

-- But later that day, a different AP story reports that:

"Dan Little, a cousin who held a news conference Friday night in West Virginia, said he had talked with her doctors and they had determined she had been shot. He said they found two entry and exit wounds 'consistent with low-velocity, small-caliber rounds.'

They also found shrapnel, Little said."

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
-- Several news organizations, including the Washington Post, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Seattle Times and Los Angeles Times have quotes from interviews with an Iraqi lawyer named Mohammed who reportedly led the special forces to Jessica Lynch. Some accounts tell of Mohammed's witnessing a black-clad Iraqi paramilitary who interrogated and slapped Lynch that spurred him to action.

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 7. The April 14 Newsweek hits the stands with Lynch on the cover. The piece briefly mentions that the commander of the hospital in Landstuhl Germany, where Lynch was being treated, says Lynch was not stabbed or shot. But then goes with the Lynch family account, including the part about "low-velocity small arms." "The unpleasant implication was that she might have been shot after she'd been captured, rather than wounded in combat," Newsweek reports. The account also raises the possibility of mistreatment in the Iraqi hospital and quotes her father as saying "she survived for part of her time in the hospital on nothing but orange juice and crackers."

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 15. The Washington Post runs a piece on page A17 that questions its earlier account. A physician from the Iraqi hospital that treated Lynch calls the rescue "a big show. … There were no bullets or shrapnel or anything like that." At the hospital, he said, "She was given special care, more than the Iraqi patients."

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."

"One account said the soldier who emptied her weapon had been shot and stabbed with a bayonet. Lynch wasn't stabbed, which suggests the soldier in question was Pfc. Lori Piestewa, 23, Lynch's roommate and the first woman to die in combat during the war, one official said. …

[Lynch] was listed in satisfactory condition Friday, with a head wound, a spinal injury and fractures to her right arm, both legs, her right foot and ankle. Gunshots may have caused open fractures on her upper right arm and lower left leg, according to the hospital."

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:

"News accounts based on military sources said that the 19-year-old Lynch, a supply clerk with the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company, had been shot repeatedly and stabbed when Iraqi forces ambushed her unit on March 23 and that she was then tortured before Navy Seals and Army Rangers stormed the hospital April 1 and brought her out.

Key elements in the story appear to have been wrong. Lynch's father and her Army doctor have both said there is no evidence that she was shot or stabbed. There is as yet no substantiation of any torture. Doctors at the hospital say that when the rescue team swooped in the building was undefended; militia forces had fled the day before."

May 4. The Toronto Star runs a 1,500-word piece on the Lynch rescue strongly questioning the accepted account:

"Branded on to our consciousness by media frenzy, the flawless midnight rescue of 19-year-old Private First Class Jessica Lynch hardly bears repeating even a month after the fact.

Precision teams of U.S. Army Rangers and Navy Seals, acting on intelligence information and supported by four helicopter gunships, ended Lynch's nine-day Iraqi imprisonment in true Rambo style, raising America's spirits when it needed it most.

All Hollywood could ever hope to have in a movie was there in this extraordinary feat of rescue - except, perhaps, the truth."

The reconsideration of the story picks up steam
May 15. In a piece by a BBC reporter, the London daily The Guardian deconstructs the Lynch story in an 1,800 word story that calls her account "one of the most stunning pieces of news management yet conceived." The story quoted several Iraqi sources who claimed that Lynch had not been shot or stabbed, that she received good care, that the US military had been told the Iraqi paramilitary guards had left the hospital before the raid, and that two days before the raid the hospital had tried to return Lynch to US forces nearby, but were fired upon and returned to the hospital.

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:

"In the Lynch case, for instance, The Post sent a correspondent to the hospital in Iraq where she had been held. Doctors there said she had not been shot or stabbed but had suffered broken bones. Other stories quoted the commander of the military hospital in Germany where Lynch had been taken. He also said she had been neither shot nor stabbed. Her father, Greg Lynch Sr., said substantially the same thing.

But none of those stories got the play of the first, and none of them specifically said, 'Look, folks, we're not so sure anymore.' Instead, the caveats and doubts were folded into other stories. The reader, like a CIA analyst, had to read everything to understand what The Post was saying. It seemed to be backing off its original account, but not in a forthright way."

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:

"Lynch's story is far more complex and different than those initial reports. … Lynch tried to fire her weapon, but it jammed, according to military officials familiar with the Army investigation. She did not kill any Iraqis. She was neither shot nor stabbed, they said. …

Two US officials with knowledge of the Army investigation said Lynch was mistreated by her captors. They would not elaborate. …

The Special Operations unit's full-scale rescue of the private, while justified given the uncertainty confronting US forces as they entered the compound, ultimately was proven unnecessary. Iraqi combatants had left the hospital almost a day earlier, leaving Lynch in the hands of doctors and nurses who said they were eager to turn her over to Americans."

-- 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."

June 18 and after. Other news organizations, including the New York Times, raise questions about how the Post's account made it into the paper. Some ask how much the government was pushing the story.