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Correcting The First Draft Of History On The Jessica Lynch Story

One of Accuracy in Media’s longstanding complaints about the practice of journalism is the reluctance, and sometimes downright refusal, of editors to correct errors. AIM’s Chairman Emeritus Reed Irvine has written that the recent difficulties at the New York Times stem in large measure from the Times’ persistent refusal to acknowledge and correct serious errors. The Jayson Blair scandal has occasioned much soul-searching among editors and publishers, who now insist that they would rather be right than first with a story.

Recently, the Washington Post issued a correction, of sorts, to a story it ran in early April about Army Private First Class Jessica Lynch. Two days after Lynch’s daring rescue from an Iraqi hospital, the Post published a sensational account of her initial capture. Post staff writers Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb depicted Lynch “fighting to the death”during a pitched battle between her unit and Iraqi paramilitary forces. Schmidt and Loeb reported that she had been shot and stabbed and credited her with shooting “several enemy soldiers” during the battle.

The Post scooped the media with this story, which then spread like wildfire through other news outlets. But doubts began to emerge about its accuracy almost immediately. Lynch’s military doctors dismissed the Post’s reports about her wounds. Her father told reporters that her doctors had found “no entry [wounds] whatsoever.” Another Post writer, Keith B. Richburg, reported from Iraq that Lynch’s injuries, including multiple fractures, resulted from a “road traffic accident.” An Iraqi doctor who treated Lynch told Richburg, “There was not a drop of blood…There were no bullets or shrapnel or anything like that.”

Michael Getler, the Post’s ombudsman, devoted his April 20 column to readers’ doubts about the Schmidt/Loeb story. According to Getler, readers suspected that the Post “was creating a sensational story riddled with inaccuracies,” which smacked of “wartime propaganda.” Getler admitted that he thought the Post should have taken a “more qualified approach” to the story; mostly because of the “thin sourcing” relied upon by the two reporters.

About a month later, the “other” Washington daily revealed that the Army had launched an investigation into the circumstances of Lynch’s capture. The Washington Times cited two “Pentagon officials” as doubting the Post’s sensational account of Lynch’s resistance. They told the Times that Lynch had most likely been injured in a traffic crash during the battle and “was in no position to put up a fight.”

On June 17, the Post finally admitted that it had gotten the story wrong. On its front page, the Post acknowledged that Lynch’s story was “far more complex and different than those initial reports.” Instead of being shot and stabbed, the Post agreed that Lynch had suffered multiple fractures when her vehicle crashed trying to escape the Iraqi ambush. Instead of running out of ammunition resisting capture, the Post now said that her weapon had jammed and “she did not kill any Iraqis.”

But the Post’s purported correction was more than a little disingenuous. The June 17 “correction” said only that the paper’s sensationalized accounts of Lynch’s rescue was carried in “nitial news reports, including those in the Washington Post,” instead of admitting that it was solely responsible for this version of Lynch’s capture. The paper sourced the story to “unnamed U.S. officials with access to intelligence reports,” and, in fact, Schmidt and Loeb had acknowledged their report was based on unconfirmed and unverified battlefield intelligence reports. Given the dubious reliability of this information, it is remarkable that the Post’s editors permitted publication of the story in the first place.

But the Post refused to accept responsibility for its mistaken story. Instead, it blamed it all on the Bush administration. “Neither the Pentagon nor the White House publicly dispelled the more romanticized initial version of her capture, helping to foster the myth surrounding Lynch and fuel accusations that the Bush administration stage-managed parts of Lynch’s story.” Never mind that the military’s “on the record” comments on Lynch were all careful and measured; for example, at no point did military spokesmen ever claim that Lynch had been wounded by a gun or knife.

The New York Times couldn’t resist the opportunity to chide the Post, whose media critic Howard Kurtz has been lashing the Times over the Blair scandal. It dutifully reported the Post’s discomfort on June 18 and tactfully reminded readers that the Post had run an “exclusive report” on Lynch’s efforts to resist capture, that was then “widely repeated in other news reports.” It could have added that this was a case in which the Post clearly opted to be “first” rather than “right.”