Some news organizations added their own fresh misinformation, either unattributed or based on the thinnest of speculation. New York Daily News reporter Maki Becker, for instance, in an early story with no dateline, quoted Amy Waters Yarsinske, “an ex-Navy intelligence officer and an expert on POW treatment,” pontificating on the cause of Lynch’s injuries, which she apparently hadn’t seen. The Daily News story, which noted at the end that it included unspecified wire-service information, quoted Yarsinske as saying without equivocation that Lynch’s broken bones “are a sure sign of torture.” The expert reportedly added in a direct quotation, “It’s awfully hard to break both legs and an arm in a truck accident.” Quod erat demonstratum. But for those still unconvinced, Yarsinske informed the Daily News that “Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s thugs are known to use steel bars to bash their prisoners’ limbs.” The expert’s leap of logic was apparently persuasive enough for a Daily News copy editor. The story’s headline read: “POW Jessica was tortured,” without so much as quotation marks to soften the accusation.
Two days later, the Daily News was taking the torture for granted. The question then was not whether she had been tortured but how badly. “Jessica took awful beating,” read the headline on that day’s story. The lead attributed that assessment to unnamed doctors’ reports on the extent of her injuries. Later in the story, reporter Owen Moritz hedged somewhat: “Officials have refused to say why so many of Lynch’s bones were broken, but it’s likely she was tortured. An Iraqi man who told the Americans where to find her urged the troops to hurry, saying she was being tortured. He later described a scene where the helpless woman was being slapped by a black-clad member of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s thuggish Fedayeen.” Even if what the “Iraqi man” said he had witnessed truly occurred – and that is heatedly contested by Iraqis at the hospital – there’s a lot of ground between being slapped and being tortured in an “awful beating.”
Each rewriting or repetition of The Post’s story seemed to raise the temperature a few more degrees. CBS News, for example, expanded subtly on the information that “There was shooting going in, there was some shooting going out.” The CBS version: U.S. Special Forces “ran through a hail of gunfire for a stranger [Lynch] – not once, but twice.” There is no evidence that that happened, although some gunshots may have been fired at an American diversionary or protective force nearby.
The rescue was routinely characterized as “daring,” and Lynch’s putative gunbattle became “Rambo-like.” Whatever actually occurred in and near that hospital in Nasiriyah, it was said to be a “triumphant moment for U.S. forces trying to unseat Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.” As Time magazine put it two months later, Lynch “immediately became a symbol of U.S. resolve, a much needed hero in a war that seemed in danger of bogging down.”
Thus did the sense of drama take on a life of its own, apart from the few hearsay facts that may or may not have supported it initially. In the curious loop of public perception, the very drama of the story seemed to lend legitimacy to the details on which it was based, even when the details were later challenged by more credible reporting. The circle was closed.
So powerful was the myth thus created that when American reporters did subsequently reach Nasiriyah, they did not immediately go to the trouble of questioning those who were present in the hospital or nearby during the by-then celebrated American raid. The few papers that did so – initially mostly non-American publications – told a very different story, but that story could not derail the original version, which had worked up such a head of steam that it appeared unthinkable that it couldn’t be true. Error, repeated often enough – especially if it’s error we’d like to believe – will trump new and complicated truths almost every time, which is why it’s essential to be careful in purveying unsubstantiated information in initial news accounts. The responsibility is even greater when popular passions are running as high as they are in wartime.
Weeks or months later, a number of news organizations revised their original rescue stories – or reprinted Associated Press or foreign accounts that called them into question – but the revisionist stories didn’t get the high-profile play accorded to the original, misleading version, as if the news media didn’t want to disabuse the public of their misconceptions with more credible, if uncomfortable, facts. The press and its public had already become overcommitted to “its” version of the Jessica Lynch Story. They felt proprietary about it.
The Washington Post and its columnists have made several stabs at correcting and explaining the newspaper’s initial story, although The Post’s hierarchy took refuge for too long in the excuse that there was a “reportorial basis” for the questionable first account, to use the words of Managing Editor Steve Coll. The most thorough of the paper’s reviews, published on June 17 on Page 1, acknowledged that the story was “far more complex and different than those initial reports” and that much of it “remains shrouded in mystery,” which it blamed “in large part” on “Army secrecy, concerns for Lynch’s privacy and her limited memory.” The account does underline how pivotal the erroneous story was, in words that may provide unintended insight into the reporters’ initial willingness to suspend journalistic skepticism and report unreliable details:
“It became the story of the war, boosting morale at home and among the troops. It was irresistible and cinematic, the maintenance clerk turned woman-warrior from the hollows of West Virginia who just wouldn’t quit. Hollywood promised to make a movie and the media, too, were hungry for heroes.”
It should go without saying that the media – at least the news media – should be concentrating on reporting the story, not satisfying their hunger for heroes … or for cinematic woman-warrior myths. Clearly, willingness to believe drove the reporting, rather than the other way around.
Getler, The Post’s ombudsman, has repeatedly criticized various aspects of his paper’s coverage, including the detailed revisionist story of June 17. He has cited the original account’s “thin sourcing” and the failure to explore the motivations and identities of unnamed sources. He said the reporters had “overwritten” their questionable exclusive details. He chastised his colleagues for underplaying their own role in propagating distortions and for downplaying their new corrections. The ombudsman asked why the unnamed sources hadn’t explained their errors and corrected them sooner. And he – along with Post columnist Richard Cohen – also questioned why it took reporters so long to reinvestigate discredited details of the original story.
There was an element of defensiveness to Cohen’s column. He noted that the paper’s reporters hadn’t done “anything unethical or wrong – or, for that matter, different from what is done elsewhere.” Cohen is certainly right on the last point, and therein lies the problem: The American press generally relies on techniques that are conducive to misuse and error.
Although The Post is to be commended for taking what its reporters called “a second, more thorough but inconclusive cut at history,” even that second cut acknowledged that “most U.S. officials still insisted that their names be withheld from this account.” The Post once again accepted the conclusions of the anonymous sources, overlooking their refusal to explain or elaborate on their critically important and disputed assertions, such as their charge that Lynch “was mistreated by her captors.” Unnamed people were given more ink to explain away the misinformation reported by other unnamed people. By then, in any case, it was too late. The myth was out of the bag, and no amount of explanation could have put it back in again.
American journalist-storytellers liked their narrative line so much that they held on to it long after its truthfulness sagged under the weight of its own ungainly hype. Until prodded for weeks by the Internet samizdat, most of them simply ignored new story lines that gained widespread acceptance elsewhere in the world and seemed to fit the available facts better – such as the timeless human drama of Iraqi doctors and nurses who overcame extraordinary wartime challenges and personal risk to provide top-notch medical care, personal safety and emotional support for a vulnerable enemy captive. The American media never did give that inspirational story line anything like the prominence it gave to the militaristic account that swelled the patriotic breast.
If journalists were to let the news be the news – without pumping it for every last, thin high-drama detail – we might reap a surprising byproduct. The journalism profession might find itself with fewer Jayson Blairs and Rick Braggs and with greater public support.
Despite the huge differences in their culpability, The New York Times’ disgraced twosome shared one common trait with their colleagues at The Post and elsewhere: They strayed from what they themselves personally witnessed or adequately credited, and in the process they fulfilled the exaggerated expectations placed on them by the marketplace. It’s unfair to compare Blair, Bragg and The Post’s reporters, but it is important to recognize that there is a continuum between deliberate fabrication of details and the tailoring of fragmentary reports to fit a good story line. When a premium is set on the unique angle, the exclusive source and the crowd-pleasing narrative, journalists are far more susceptible to the unsubstantiated, the invented and the exaggerated. In this case, much of the American press fell for the patriotic Jessica Lynch Story that they themselves had a large role in creating through sloppy sourcing and attribution.
Private Lynch has been saved. The odds are longer on saving the press. The first step should be rethinking the techniques journalists use routinely to report on events that they – and in this case even their sources – did not witness in person. If they expect more credibility than is accorded to any other form of storytelling, they must become far more rigorous in qualifying and reporting information from unnamed and unexplained sources. And they must reassess the process by which they adopt, rewrite, headline and compound other journalists’ hearsay information until it grows so far from its roots that it becomes an unrecognizable mutation of the original information. The Jessica Lynch Story, like much that passes for news today, developed through a process that was more folkloric than journalistic.
Above all, journalists must do constant battle with the demands of the marketplace by distinguishing news from entertaining story line. That is an especially important responsibility in wartime. With limited visibility in what has been called “the fog of war,” reporters too often hasten to tell stories based on details that have not yet come into focus. The results, like The Jessica Lynch Story, may be damned good “war stories,” but they may not be true.
Peter Y. Sussman, a recipient of SPJ’s coveted Wells Key, is a member of the society’s Ethics Committee and was a co-author of its Code of Ethics. He has been conducting a series of workshops around the country exploring wartime journalism ethics.