The heroic Jessica Lynch Story – her down-to-the-last-bullet gun battle before being captured and her rescuers’ daring dash to freedom in a hail of gunfire – has been shot down more effectively than the Iraqi army. The next stage of the story’s natural evolution is upon us: The mediaplex is moving on from the typically confusing ambiguity of news coverage to the heart-stirring simplicity of a primetime biopic, with NBC scheduled to air a two-hour special, “Saving Jessica Lynch,” this month. The network won’t put a label on the docudrama, but a publicist asked that it be described as “based on the true story.” The project is being handled by NBC’s entertainment division, with Iraqi scenes filmed in Texas.
As if the networks weren’t compromised enough by their role in the Jessica Lynch story, ABC’s news division won the ferocious battle for the first interview with the young woman, which is scheduled to air on Nov. 11 – the same day as her book is released. That interview, to be followed in quick order by interviews on other major networks, thus completes the transition from news story to promotional sales campaign, with the “news media” playing the role of compliant handmaiden. Now, before this news story is forever reduced to its entertaining derivatives, the journalism industry owes it to itself, its public and its future credibility to identify the lingering casualties of this misbegotten war story and prepare to report the next battle.
In a literal sense, of course, Private Lynch was the casualty. Although she didn’t have the bullet and stab wounds we were first led to believe she had, she nevertheless sustained severe injuries in what apparently was a road accident occasioned by a grenade attack during her unit’s chaotic race for safety from behind enemy lines. She was understandably traumatized by her tumultuous capture and by her experiences in Iraqi hands during a volatile and dangerous time.
But the scared 19-year-old supply clerk was not the main casualty of The Jessica Lynch Story, the media’s feel-good-story-gone-bad. Although she may ultimately profit from aspects of the story, Lynch never expected to find herself in enemy hands, much less the leading lady in an international drama of mythical proportions.
The biggest casualties in The Jessica Lynch Story, as it played itself out in the global mediascape, are less tangible and, ultimately, more significant: a national news/entertainment marketplace that has been conditioned to expect that its real-life stories have the outsized drama of its fictional fare; a government that has learned how to succeed in that marketplace by projecting its carefully contrived and equally fictional images and messages onto the national screen; and the credibility of the news media that sell their wares in the marketplace without adequate control over the quality of their own merchandise.
The bloated expectations of the national marketplace have been fed in part by news media that continue to try to satisfy an appetite that is none of their business. Journalists’ core business is news, not entertainment. They should not be cooking up stories with one eye focused on whether they will become network sweeps-week specials.
In the aftermath of the Lynch rescue, television networks scrambled frantically for interviews with anyone remotely connected with the young woman. The publicity director for Lynch’s book said the competition for her story “was like a blood sport.” Although NBC purchased the TV film rights to part of the rescue story, it was CBS News’ courting of the then-hospitalized soldier that seemed to illustrate the most egregious violations of journalistic ethics. CBS’s fulsome pitch epitomizes the ever-more-prevalent commingling of news and entertainment in the conglomerates that dominate the “news business.”
The New York Times quoted from a letter that CBS News Senior Vice President Betsy West sent to the soldier’s military representatives in April, while the subject of her blandishments was recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. West’s letter outlined news and entertainment opportunities at various divisions of CBS News’ corporate parent, Viacom. The letter said: “Attached you will find the outlines of a proposal that includes ideas from CBS News, CBS Entertainment, MTV networks and Simon & Schuster publishers. From the distinguished reporting of CBS News to the youthful reach of MTV, we believe this is a unique combination of projects that will do justice to Jessica’s inspiring story.”
Sadly, such hopelessly confused and conflicting loyalties at the corporate level have filtered down to individual reporters and editors. Certainly it would be exceedingly difficult for any of CBS’s “distinguished” journalists to question dispassionately an interviewee whom their boss had wooed with intimations of lucrative deals and the assurance that the network found her story “inspiring.” It is equally hard to imagine how any true journalism can emerge from the blizzard of Lynch interviews on news shows that networks fought so hard to secure during the upcoming promotional campaign for her book.
Any number of recent lurid news stories has demonstrated that even when journalists are not fronting overtly for corporate partners, they play to the entertainment demographics, increasing the ravenous appetite of the market each time they cater to it in individual news reports. The process goes almost unnoticed as, each day in small ways, noteworthy events are transformed from noun to adjective: from news to news stories.
The next casualty of The Jessica Lynch Story, the government’s image-makers, probably sustained the lightest wounds. They’ve become very skilled at camouflaging their role, which is – like the corporate confusion between news and entertainment marketplace – part of a larger American trend that antedates this story and this administration. The press has helped to further the image-makers’ ability to mold public opinion at will. It has done so by acting like consumers itself, passing along to the public, uncritically, the Messages of the Day, the carefully crafted and placed rumors and leaks and the audiovisual stage trickery that politicians have elevated to an art form.
Once upon a time, skepticism was a fundamental journalistic value, and the role of the press was to provide an independent check on the powers a wary people invested in their government. The relics of that historic role are enshrined still in the U.S. Constitution. But a compliant press corps, intent on competing for exclusive, dramatic details of the same hot-selling story that every other news organization is chasing, depends on the government’s image-makers for raw material and is unlikely to serve as a real check on government’s sophisticated and beguiling powers of deception.
Despite the claim of BBC in one of the earliest major reports debunking the Jessica Lynch coverage, there is no evidence that the story of the rescue was “one of the most stunning pieces of [government] news management yet conceived.” But various government officials certainly “enhanced” details that they supplied to the press, which, in turn, ate it all up and begged for more.
The Jessica Lynch Story started and ended with news stories, so let’s look in detail at some of the journalistic practices that led to this new blow to the profession’s battered integrity. Perhaps the journalism community can learn from embarrassment, if not from its highly touted professional standards. Only by tinkering with their routine procedures can reporters and editors make fewer such errors in the future. It’s necessary to look at the story’s development chronologically to see how common omissions and errors were compounded and ossified into enduring myth that could never be fully dislodged from public consciousness – even by subsequent, responsible revisionist accounts.
Let’s begin our postmortem with a simple but critical fact that may not have been as evident to readers, viewers and listeners as it should have been: The Jessica Lynch rescue took place in Nasiriya, but the press that reported it was gathered in Doha, Qatar, at the isolated press briefing room of the U.S. Central Command. Indeed, some of the more egregious errors were originated and disseminated by reporters covering the story from the United States. In other words, just about every word and image that the press reported initially – from a five-minute prepackaged videotape of rescue highlights to the compelling story line and the dramatic military leaks – was based on the American military’s account of an event that not even the briefers and leakers and videotape editors, much less the reporters, had witnessed firsthand. The press was at the receiving end of a giant game of “telephone.”
To the extent that journalists strayed from their purely stenographic role in their earliest stories of the rescue, it was to pass along vivid details from anonymous sources and from other news accounts and to spin out the aura of drama inherent in the military’s original, brief recital of events. This is the point in the news process at which the military’s report of a news development became a story.
Most of the misinformation can be traced back to unnamed sources quoted in a Washington Post account – published on April 3, two days after the rescue – by reporters Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb. The story, said Post ombudsman Michael Getler, was “written in Washington.” The oft-quoted Schmidt-Loeb story cited “U.S. officials” for the information that Lynch, before her capture, had “fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers … firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition.” There must have been several sources for that information, since “officials” is a plural noun, but none of them was identified in any way, for reasons that were not specified.
It was just one “U.S. official” who gave Schmidt and Loeb the story’s most striking quote: “She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.” The same “official” – agency, rank and source unspecified – told The Post that Lynch “sustained multiple gunshot wounds” in her capture and “was stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in on her position.” Information that the young woman had “gunshot and stab wounds” was attributed also to “sources.”
The news that “There was shooting going in, there was some shooting going out” came from “one officer” (although there appeared to be no reason for the anonymity in this instance aside from force of habit, since the military’s lead spokesman, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, said on the record that “There was not a firefight inside of the building, I will tell you, but there were firefights outside of the building, getting in and getting out.”).
CBS News, which passed along much of the Post story, reported independently that Lynch had “at least one gunshot wound,” attributing the information to “U.S. officials in Kuwait” – again with no indication of their agency or the nature of their access to the information. BBC said she had “multiple gunshot wounds” (no source given), as did CNN (“Pentagon sources”). A CNN correspondent also reported that “The Americans encountered moderate resistance from inside the hospital and a nearby building” – facts that were also not attributed and that later turned out to be largely untrue.
Let’s pause the chronology here, at the origins of the myth-making process, to ask whether it was absolutely essential and fair to the reader that the most memorable information in the early stories – especially the Post’s graphic rendering, which was quoted by most of the other major news media – should be cited anonymously, with no explanation of the reasons for the lack of attribution. Reliance on unnamed sources is, of course, an increasingly common practice in journalism, and sometimes it is warranted, but if nothing else the Jessica Lynch story demonstrates what a dangerous and overused tool it can be.
Anonymity has become a convenient and damage-free way for government officials to put their own spin on the affairs of state, bypassing traditional journalistic credibility tests. It’s impossible for others to cross-examine the views of an anonymous source, so it is all the more important that journalists use such sources only after meticulous exploration of the source’s reasons for requesting anonymity, their motivations for revealing the information and the provenance of the information itself. Readers, viewers and listeners are entitled to know why unattributed information is worthy of credibility, and they are also owed as many clues as possible to the origin of the information they are consuming. The information should also be so critically important to the public that reporters are justified in overlooking sources’ reluctance to associate it with their names.
Even if The Washington Post reporters had pressed their sources and concluded with certainty that the information was reliable and vital, that the sources were not manipulating them and that the reasons for the anonymity were justified, the public had a right to more specific information about the agency or military branch, rank, information access and credibility of the sources. “U.S. official,” “sources” and “one officer” sheds no more light than attributing information to “Eenie, Meenie, Miney and Moe.” Such shorthand attribution is the journalistic equivalent of “someone told me.”
As it turned out, many of The Post’s sources were actually quoting from their even shakier sources, and many of those sources were distributing unreliable and contradictory information. In other words, the reporters might have said, “Eenie and Meanie told Miney and Moe, and they told me,” with no indication of how Miney and Moe came into the information, much less Eenie and Meanie. As in any game of “telephone,” the more participants, the less reliable the information at the end of the game.
The Post’s readers – and reporters who passed along The Post’s version of the story to others – had a right to know how “officers,” “officials” and “sources” acquired each of their titillating but – as it turned out – erroneous details. Nor was it enough to attribute the information to aggregated sources. Associating the word “intelligence” with the word “sources” does not make the information any more creditable. “Intelligence” starts with raw, contradictory data that must be sifted and compared and compiled. Unless the reader understands that, the use of raw intelligence data is worse than useless; it is misleading – as it turned out to be in this case.
In fact, although it does not mitigate the offenses of omission, Schmidt and Loeb did hedge their exclusives somewhat … by citing equally anonymous sources. The reporters wrote that “several officials” told them that the “precise sequence” of events was still being determined. One wonders why none of those officials could say that on the record. Were they asked? There appears to be no national security concern or other compelling reason not to state forthrightly, in print, in one’s own name, that the “precise sequence” of events had not yet been determined.
These particular unnamed officials said the source of unspecified “reports thus far” (which reports?) was “battlefield intelligence” derived from “monitored communications and from Iraqi sources in Nasiriyah whose reliability has yet to be assessed.” What’s more, “Pentagon officials” (doesn’t ANYbody have a name in the Pentagon?) “had heard ‘rumors’ of Lynch’s heroics but had no confirmation.”
As I read those qualifications, anonymous people had heard what other anonymous people had reported but had not yet established its reliability. It is unclear if the anonymous U.S. officials who reported the heroics in The Post’s lead paragraph were the same as the anonymous officials who said they were only unconfirmed rumors. Did the reporters who wrote The Post’s definitive lead know that it was based solely on rumors – if indeed it was? Later Post reporting suggests that they did, which in turn suggests that The Post’s entire lead was based on what the reporters had been told were only rumors. To have given such rumors that kind of prominence was journalistically inexcusable, as was the failure to tie the information directly and unambiguously to acknowledgements of its unreliability.
As it turned out, the raw intelligence data on which the Post’s unidentified sources were relying may have been based on a translation error. So much for intelligence sources.
Finally, the Post packaged its rumors with Page 1 play and the unqualified headline: “She Was Fighting to the Death.”
The military later denied giving misinformation to the press, and indeed no one could point to quotations in which their spokespeople had done so. As Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, put it in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, “Official spokespeople in Qatar and in Washington, as well as the footage released, reflected the events accurately and as fully as possible based on information from troops and commanders who were directly involved in the rescue.”
Clarke was largely correct, in a narrowly literal sense. But the military appears complicit in the myth-making in several regards. First, at least some of the officials who gave The Post erroneous information and spicy quotes – off the record – worked for the Pentagon. Second, the military helpfully provided some of their own drama in their staging of a 3 a.m. news conference and their pre-edited videotapes with the eerie green hyper-realism of night-vision photography – videotapes that they refused to release to the media in their unedited form. Third, General Brooks summed up the rescue initially as “a classic operation, done by some of our nation’s finest warriors, who are dedicated to never leaving a comrade behind.” That doesn’t sound like an uneventful retrieval from an undefended hospital.
Finally, of course, through the first few news cycles, while the story was gaining a full head of steam in the great global marketplace, no one from the Pentagon or elsewhere in the government volunteered, “Wait a minute. It didn’t happen that way,” though Defense Department officials must have known from military doctors and others that at least part of the prevailing story was false. Rather, some news reports had the Pentagon declining to comment on The Post account. The Pentagon is not generally loathe to correct journalists’ errors, but it chose not to do so with this story.
One is free to speculate – as many have done – whether the Pentagon chose to remain quiet because officials welcomed the positive publicity after days of unflattering news reports by embedded reporters, including a troubling account by a Post writer the day before the Lynch rescue of how U.S. soldiers killed 10 civilians, many of them women and children, in a van at a checkpoint. In that instance, the Pentagon was quick to put its own spin on The Post’s report, contradicting the on-the-scene news report that no warning shots had been fired and placing blame for the incident on Saddam Hussein (“The blood is on the hands of the regime,” said General Brooks).
The journalistic squishiness of The Post’s dramatic rescue story didn’t stop the rest of the nation’s media from wading still deeper into the quicksand. In fact, they embellished The Post’s initial story with their own superheated phrasing. In the words of “one colonel” (typically, unnamed) in a subsequent Post “cleanup” story, the Lynch rescue “took on a life of its own. Reporters seem to be reporting on each other’s information.”
Many news organizations dispensed with the qualifiers when they picked up questionable elements of The Post story. The New York Daily News reported: “Lynch opened fire on the Iraqi assailants, picking them off one by one until she ran out of ammunition, according to today’s Washington Post. She continued shooting – even after she was shot and stabbed and her unit members were killed all around her.” Note that the information now bears the authority of The Washington Post, not of murky anonymous sources with an undefined but remote connection to the events in question.
Other news outlets also spread The Washington Post story like a cultural virus, and many similarly attributed the information not to “anonymous sources who told The Washington Post” or to “rumors picked up by The Washington Post” but to The Post itself. It’s an error not unlike the all-too-common student habit of attributing information by saying, “according to the Internet.”