Precisely five years ago the U.S. media were transfixed on the heroic rescue of a captured U.S. Army Pfc. named Jessica Lynch, who supposedly had emerged from her hellhole in Iraq, guns blazing, in a daring operation to save her. The invasion of Iraq had just started to run into some difficulties -- amid signs that Americans might not be greeted with flowers after all -- and the Lynch rescue helped rally the country and had significant propaganda value.
And propaganda, as it turned out, was at the heart of it. News would shortly emerge -- after the fall of Baghdad -- that the Lynch rescue was almost nothing like it was pictured in the press, most notably in a Washington Post account which was headlined "She Was Fighting to the Death." In fact, Lynch never fired her weapon. Two months later, on June 17, 2003, the Post ran a 5,000-word front-page piece that admitted errors in the original account -- but also defended much of it.
Twelve days after that, Michael Getler, then the paper's ombudsman, observed: "This was the single most memorable story of the war, and it had huge propaganda value. It was false, but it didn't get knocked down until it didn't matter quite so much."
Two weeks ago, around the 5th anniversary of the war, Lynch told U.S. News and World Report: "I'm still confused as to why they chose to lie and try to make me a legend...They wanted to make people think that maybe this war was a good thing," she said. "Instead, people were getting killed, and it was going downhill fast. They wanted a hero."
Lynch had indeed been severely injured as her Humvee crashed during an ambush outside Nasiriyah and was taken by captors to a hospital. When she was rescued on April 1 the Post and other media claimed she had reportedly killed several Iraqis in a gun battle and sustained many gunshot wounds herself. The Pentagon helpfully described the rescue as a brave Special Operations raid, featuring battles with Iraqis and Black Hawk helicopters firing away.
A New York Times story on April 3, 2003, by Thom Shanker and John Broder followed the outline, with Lynch suffering gunshot wounds in a dangerous rescue: "It was an Iraqi who got word to the Americans, Bush administration officials said, launching a mission that included Marine Corps artillery to distract enemy soldiers and Army Rangers securing the hospital grounds while Navy Special Operations forces, called Seals, extracted Private Lynch while being fired upon going in and coming back out."
Another April 3 story in the Times covered Lynch's hometown in West Virginia celebrating he release. It carried the bylines of Douglas Jehl and -- Jayson Blair. The "Jessica Lynch" scandal later got mixed up in the "Jayson Blair" scandal when it turned out he had lied about certain aspects of his "coverage" of that episode.
But much of the media went wild over the story (as noted in my new book on Iraq and the media), even as Lynch's father revealed that he had been told that no gunshot wounds had been discovered.
It wasn't until early May that the story really fell apart, thanks largely to a Toronto Star reporter named Mitch Potter, whose sources told him that actually Lynch had been well cared for at the hospital, that her captors had left up to two days before the raid and that actually fire from U.S. forces had prevented hospital staffers from loading her in an ambulance. The BBC soon confirmed much of this scenario.
The Post corrective appeared a few weeks later. On June 20, Nicholas Kristof in his New York Times column wrote: "Pfc. Jessica Lynch did not mow down Iraqis until her ammo ran out, was not shot and apparently was not plucked from behind enemy lines by U.S. commandos braving a firefight. It looks as if the first accounts of the rescue were embellished, like the imminent threat from W.M.D., and like wartime pronouncements about an uprising in Basra and imminent defections of generals. There's a pattern: we were misled...
"Ms. Lynch is still a hero in my book, and it was unnecessary for officials to try to turn her into a Hollywood caricature. As a citizen, I deeply resent my government trying to spin me like a Ping-Pong ball....
"The Iraqis misused our prisoners for their propaganda purposes, and it hurts to find out that some American officials were misusing Private Lynch the same way." And the media went along for the ride.
Lynch got hate mail for years from people accusing her of making of the story - when it was really the Pentagon and the press. She told Diane Sawyer in a TV interview: "They used me to symbolize all this stuff. It's wrong." She told Congress in testimony last year: "They should have found out the facts before they spread the word like wildfire."
Greg Mitchell writes about the Lynch case and much more in his new book, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. It includes a preface by Bruce Springsteen and foreword by Joseph L. Galloway and has been hailed by our own Arianna, Bill Moyers, Glenn Greenwald and others. He is editor of Editor & Publisher.