Most of you remember the name Jayson Blair. Blair was a young, up-and-coming reporter at the New York Times whose career collapsed when he was caught doing what it turned out he’d always been doing, and what the Times and its farm team, the Boston Globe, had taught him to do: close his informational gaps and punch up his narrative with fabrication. What people don’t remember was what brought him to light: his dishonesty on a story that was part of a feeding frenzy around a battlefield Amazon, Private First Class Jessica Lynch.
Lynch was a made-for-the media heroine: young, pretty, and blonde, and of course female, which gave all those J-school types an anthropological hook upon which to hang their shallow dives into the patriarchal military culture that they so transparently loathed. The story was, literally, in the case of the Post headline, that “Lynch kept firing until she ran out of ammo.” That same Post story went n to praise her heroics in very concrete terms:
Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk, continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting 11 days ago, one official said. The ambush took place after a 507th convoy, supporting the advancing 3rd Infantry Division, took a wrong turn in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
“She was fighting to the death,” the official said. “She did not want to be taken alive.”
Lynch was also stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in on her position, the official said, noting that initial intelligence reports indicated that she had been stabbed to death. No official gave any indication yesterday, however, that Lynch’s wounds had been life-threatening.
Wow, she sounds awesome*. No wonder Panetta is jamming women into the infantry as quickly as he can without interfering with his million-dollar Gulfstream commute. Kipling was right!
There’s only one problem. There was no “official” who had this information, because it was all false. The Post reporters, Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb (and an uncredited Dana Priest among others), at the most bent-over-backwards charitable interpretation of their actions, dishonestly based the whole thing on a an intelligence community bureaucrat who was not in position to know this information, who was contradicted by their other sources (as Loeb has admitted), and who made the whole thing up, or, more likely, the sole-source anonymous “official” never existed.
Because all the facts recounted in the extract above are false, except Lynch’s biographical data, and that she was taken prisoner and it happened in Nasiriya, Iraq, after an ambush by Iraqi irregulars. She was injured in the crash of a vehicle at the ambush’s outset and spent the whole fight unconscious. She was not shot, even once (she did receive multiple fractures and internal injuries). She was not stabbed. She did not watch the soldiers around her die. She did not fire a shot — her rifle was hopelessly jammed from the outset. The only thing she remembers is going to her knees and praying.
When she was debriefed, intelligence officers quickly learned, and reported, these facts, and by the time the Post story ran, if their “official” had been in the loop, he, or more probably, she, would have had the facts. So either an official with no access made up a tall tale with a lot of reporterly detail, or Schmidt, Loeb and Priest jaysonblaired it.
Occam’s Razor points towards the second explanation. Since that time, the Post reporters have grown increasingly mum (and testy when questioned) about their story, which has to have been a fabrication: if not theirs, one by the nameless, faceless, portfolio-less “official,” a liar they are still protecting at great cost to their own reputations. Reporters owe no duty of confidentiality to sources that lie to and manipulate them, as this one did, if he exists. Therefore, odds are near unity that this “official” never existed except as a vehicle for Schmidt’s, Loeb’s, and Priest’s opinions and imagination. Where they went wrong was that they expected Lynch to go along with being made a heroine and a poster child for women in combat. But Lynch has been extremely forthright about her experiences, and during her time in the public eye was brutally critical of the media and of the DOD’s media handlers, who picked up and amplified the Post fabrication.
Professor W. Joseph Campbell of American University, one of those poor misguided wretches who still believes journalism is a calling and ought to be practiced with integrity, has been a terrier on this case (at the bottom of that latest story are all his blog posts on the story, and it’s covered extensively in his 2010 book, Getting it Wrong, which graces the shelves here at WeaponsMan
Secret Lair on Skullcrusher Mountain World HQ in the horsey suburbs). As an institution, the Post would certainly like to see the controversy go away, so that they can quietly retain any awards for the fake story (as the Times does for Walter Duranty’s phony reportage from the 1930s USSR) without having to answer questions about it. Indeed, several generations of Post Reporter’s Representative, the guy who excuses and accuses (reporter misconduct and questioners, respectively) have grown increasingly testy with Campbell, as is common with PR flacks for struggling organizations. From PR Flack Patrick Pexton’s last message to the Professor: “Tweeting about your frustration over the time it is taking is a disincentive for me to push harder on it. Most readers are polite and understanding. Why should I put your request ahead of others when you choose to coerce and bully? …. If that’s not to your liking, then I apologize but that is your issue, not mine.” Mind you, the “coerce and bully” was Campbell’s Twitter mention of the Post’s erased, broomed or simply misplaced story. Which he sent after five weeks of stonewalling from Pexton. Since then, he’s had five more weeks. Pexton and the Post editors have been unable or unwilling to explain where the broomed story went for two and a half months… and counting. And it’s not just the story that’s gone, but other pieces linked to it.
So the Post’s fabrication has culminated, finally, in the Post memory-holing their fabricated story†, other editorial pieces that referenced it, and even previous columns by reporters’ representatives on it (particularly one by Michael Gerson that was mildly critical of the story’s sloppy sole-sourcing). Old links to the story now 404, and searches on the Post domain do not find it. It is gone. We have always been at war with Eastasia. The chocolate ration has been raised from 20 grams to 10. Nothing to see here, folks.
After Professor Campbell’s questions about what happened to the story brought him the Post’s short-tempered reply above, he naturally tweeted and blogged about it, and current reporters’ representative Patrick Pexton and the fabricating trio of Schmidt, Loeb and Priest continue to take well-deserved reputational hits. In the military milieu, those bylines produce something a doctor might call the Skip Story Reflex. You can tell they’re lying, their lips are moving. So why read anything with those bylines?
After a while, and a little experience, you understand that this is just how journalists work. Ms Lynch, now a private person and content to stay that way, completed her college degree (she’d joined the Army for college money) and is reportedly now an elementary school teacher and a mother. There was a lot of demand for a book from her, so she selected Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times reporter Rick Bragg as her ghostwriter, only to have him include a rape-in-captivity that she does not remember or believe happened. Bragg’s career at the Times ended when he was fired. For a fabricated and plagiarized story.
His defense was that all reporters do it. Who are we to argue with him?
* And actually she was awesome, for her conduct in captivity and her integrity and humility afterward, but that’s not what the Post’s three little fabricators were writing about, was it?
† The Post has taken the story and references to it down, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette picked it up at the time and hasn’t gotten word to scrub it yet, so you can still read it here. Just bear in mind that all the facts in it that were not in a DOD press release about Lynch are made up, and the general thrust of the story is completely imaginary. Hey, Rick Bragg says all reporters do it.