AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   August/September 2003

Jessica Lynch’s Story: A Little Too Perfect?   

The Washington Post grapples with accusations that its coverage of Jessica Lynch came closer to government propaganda than the truth.

By Steve Ritea
Ritea is a reporter for New Orleans' Times-Picayune     

On April 3, Pfc. Jessica Lynch was G.I. Jane come to life, a soldier refusing to be taken alive by Iraqi forces that ambushed her unit as she squeezed every last round out of her weapon and into the enemy. Just when the war in Iraq seemed to drag and was losing public support, there was America's heroine on the front page of the Washington Post. "She was fighting to the death," the headline proclaimed over an exclusive story of bravery that immediately circulated all over the world.

It was the perfect story at the perfect time. And, in the end, it turned out to be too perfect.

Less than three months later, the Post would run another front-page story on Lynch, this time noting that the intelligence reports that had cast her as a hero--and formed the basis for the April piece--were wrong.

Michael Getler, the Post's ombudsman--and arguably its harshest critic--says the April story was "based on pretty flimsy sourcing," much of it anonymous, and "should have been written more cautiously."

Vernon Loeb, who wrote the story with another reporter, Susan Schmidt, calls their sourcing solid. He concedes, however, that the tale could have benefited from stronger and more prominent caveats about the sketchiness of intelligence reports. "My lesson learned is I should have been more cautious in the way I wrote this story," he says. "But, having said that, I would have written the story anyway."

Ellen Shearer, who runs Northwestern University's Medill News Service in Washington, D.C., says this should serve as a cautionary tale to any news organization coping with the challenges of wartime reporting. "It was a great story," she says. "The Post has great editors and reporters and if this could happen to them, I think this shows how very skeptical we all have to be."

The day after the Post's blowout on Lynch appeared, it started unraveling. Although the second paragraph of the story reported that Lynch had "continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds," on April 4 the commander of an army hospital in Germany where Lynch was being treated told the Associated Press that the 19-year-old hadn't been shot or stabbed. The Post included the AP's information in a story that ran on Page A27, though readers who did not read halfway into it might have easily overlooked it.

"That should have been the first red flag that something was wrong and should have produced a lot of follow-up reporting," says Getler, adding that the Post didn't run a corrective story until June. "It took a long, long time to be corrected." Post reports that Lynch gunned down several Iraqis would also prove false.

Loeb agrees the paper should have given the conflicting report about Lynch's wounds more prominence, but says: "In the days following, it really became muddled." On April 6, in fact, the AP released another story, reporting, "The hospital...said gunshots may have caused fractures to her upper right arm and lower left leg." The story also noted the statement two days prior saying Lynch had not been shot.

Nonetheless, skepticism of the Post's account grew in the following weeks and months, with the BBC in May airing a documentary suggesting Pentagon officials fed reporters a wholly false account of the Lynch saga to boost sagging support for the war.

Shearer said another red flag should have gone up when such a dramatic and stirring tale of patriotism popped up at such an opportune moment. "Were there no warnings in their own heads that some of this seemed maybe a little too perfect?" she asks.

Loeb dismisses accusations that the military used his paper as an organ for propaganda. "I don't think we were spun at all," he says. "I don't think the Pentagon ever set out to make Jessica Lynch a poster child for battlefield heroism."

The Post based its story on battlefield intelligence reports that Loeb says are "almost always wrong in some respect" and need to be handled with extreme caution--possibly more caution, he acknowledges, than he actually used.

But he and Post Managing Editor Steve Coll say they have no reason to doubt that their April 3 story accurately reflected the information contained in those reports--even if the reports had inaccuracies. "We had multiple sources because multiple people were reading the same intelligence report," Coll says.

"Sometimes intelligence is a dicey first draft and not very widely circulated, but this was real intelligence, and it was of sufficient interest to be reviewed and fairly widely circulated."

Many details of Lynch's capture remain unclear.

On June 17, two-and-a-half-months after the Post's original story, and after Hollywood producers eyeing a TV movie had already started calling Lynch's Palestine, West Virginia, home, the paper ran a lengthy follow-up. It conceded, in the ninth paragraph, that "Lynch's story is far more complex and different" than the initial intelligence reports that formed the basis of the paper's first story indicated.

She had not been shot or stabbed, the story said, and she did not kill any Iraqis. Rather, her weapon jammed during a firefight with the enemy. She later sustained major injuries while riding in a Humvee that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, causing the driver to lose control and slam into a jackknifed tractor-trailer. Lynch has given no interviews and family members have said she does not remember anything about her capture.

Orville Schell, dean of the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, says the Jessica Lynch story and how it circulated deserves scrutiny not just because it was false, but because it was a story that helped shore up sagging support for the war. "This wasn't someone saying the cat was black when it was white," he says. "This was wish fulfillment."

Getler says exploring whether there was a willful effort to spin the story for the press is an avenue that deserves more exploration than the Post's second story contained. "Nobody has, to my knowledge, gone back to question the sources of the story to see if this was an honest mistake or whether people were trying to be manipulative," he says. He also took issue with his paper's heavy reliance on anonymous sources--just as it had in the April 3 story--in its attempt set the record straight. (See "Important if True.")

Loeb would love to get sources to go on the record every time he conducts an interview, but says that's just not the way the world works. "Getler lives in this ombudsman, Pollyanna-ish world," he says. "We relied on anonymous sources in our comeback story because we wanted to get at the truth"--a truth, Loeb adds, the paper could not have reported without the help of people unwilling to go on the record.

But just as the first story's caveats were featured a little lower in the text than perhaps they should have been, the comeback story did not mention the errors that needed correcting until the ninth paragraph. "It was sort of what I'd call a soft correction," Getler says, lamenting that the correction aspect didn't even come before the jump.

Loeb is proud of how the paper handled the situation. The second story, in fact, states: "The Post interviewed dozens of people, including associates of Lynch's family in West Virginia; Iraqi doctors, nurses and civilian witnesses in Nasiriyah; and U.S. intelligence and military officials in Washington." "I personally was delighted that we took the time to go back at this issue and, as best we could, set the record straight," Loeb says. "People in the media have to be willing to be held to the same sort of scrutiny we hold other people to."