Accuracy in Media

One of the more dramatic moments in the war on Iraq was the late-night raid to free American POW Army Private First Class Jessica Lynch. The Washington Post and other media sources carried breathless accounts of her rescue by a team of U.S. special forces and Rangers. But now media critics are expressing doubt about the military’s version of the story. Some are now alleging that the raid was a “wag the dog” effort to revive flagging U.S. morale. Even conservative commentator Cal Thomas labeled the military’s version of the raid “stinky” and “awfully curious” on the Fox NewsWatch program.

The controversy was started by a story in the Toronto Star. It alleged that there had been no Iraqi opposition during the raid and that Iraqi doctors and nurses made heroic sacrifices to treat Lynch while in their care. Several days later ABC’s Peter Jennings told his audience the raid “may have been less dangerous and maybe even less challenging” than the military had claimed.

The Toronto Star’s story took on new life when the BBC aired a documentary claiming the military’s version of the raid was false. The documentary said the Lynch rescue represented “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived.” BBC reporter John Kampfner charged that the Pentagon had fallen under the influence of Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer. He said Bruckheimer convinced the Pentagon to concentrate on “visuals,” even at the expense of the actual facts.

The BBC documentary asserted that the dramatic raid was actually unnecessary. It said Iraqi doctors tried to turn Lynch over to the Americans two days earlier, but were turned away by gunfire at a checkpoint. It claimed the Americans knew that Iraqi forces had already left the hospital. In this account, U.S. forces came in firing blanks and setting off explosions, just like in an American action movie.

The Toronto Star and BBC accounts have some credibility problems. First, no one believes that U.S. special forces and Ranger units would use blanks in the middle of a war zone. Nor should anyone be surprised that explosions were set off at the beginning of the raid. It is customary to use devices known as “flash bangs” to stun potential bad guys in hostage situations. Fox News consultant Colonel David Hunt, a former special operations officer, correctly noted that neither story cited any military sources. Participants in the raid told him that Marine units had driven off 25-30 Iraqi soldiers from outside the hospital before Lynch was carried out to a waiting helicopter.

Hunt also says that he was told that someone in an ambulance approached an American checkpoint and asked for $10,000 in return for information on Lynch. In retrospect, there do seem to be a number of details about the Lynch story that were reported incorrectly. She was injured during the Iraqi attack on her unit, but she was not wounded or stabbed. Nor did “she fight to the death,” as reported in the Washington Post. Maybe both sides should have been more cautious in the use of their sources.

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