Steve Sachs Duke


Friday, July 25, 2003


A Tale of Two Stories: Jessica Lynch recently returned home to West Virginia, according to a rather sober account by the Associated Press:

Former POW Jessica Lynch returns to West Virginia today, four months after ordeal in Iraq
Associated Press Writers

Former POW Jessica Lynch is coming home to West Virginia today after nearly four months of recuperation from multiple broken bones and other injuries, and hospital stays in Iraq, Germany and Washington, D.C.

Lynch and her parents will board a Black Hawk helicopter at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington at late morning for a flight to Elizabeth, W.Va. A unit from the Parkersburg National Guard, which includes Lynch's cousin, Dan Little, will bring her home.

Little, who has spoken twice with Lynch in the past week, said her spirits have been buoyed by the imminent homecoming.

A couple of pretty standard paragraphs--who, what, where, when, etc. Compare with this, however, the first three paragraphs of the same story as reported by Deanna Wrenn of Reuters:

Hyped hero Jessica Lynch due home
By Deanna Wrenn

PALESTINE, West, Virginia [sic.] (Reuters) - Jessica Lynch, the wounded Army private whose ordeal in Iraq was hyped into a media fiction of U.S. heroism, is set for an emotional homecoming today in a rural West Virginia community bristling with flags, yellow ribbons and TV news trucks.

But when the 20-year-old supply clerk arrives by Blackhawk helicopter to the embrace of family and friends, media critics say the TV cameras will not show the return of an injured soldier so much as a reality-TV drama co-produced by U.S. government propaganda and credulous reporters.

"It no longer matters in America whether something is true or false. The population has been conditioned to accept anything: sentimental stories, lies, atomic bomb threats," said John MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's magazine.

Now, which of these accounts sounds to you like the product of the politicized news media? If you ask me, the "media fiction of U.S. heroism" has a decidedly editorial ring to it. Besides, what do we know to be fictional about the case of Jessica Lynch? As the Washington Post has admitted (however reluctantly), the initial reports of her fighting back at her captors were incorrect. Moreover, the soldiers who rescued her did not take fire from the hospital itself. However, her rescuers were fired upon from elsewhere in the hospital grounds, and therefore claims that the rescue was purposefully dramatized (or that the soldiers were firing blanks) are mistaken. Although it's always possible that the initial stories were the result of deliberate misinformation, it's just as possible that they resulted from simple human error. And in any case, does this really justify a judgment that the entire episode was a "media fiction"?

(At the very least, won't the footage of her return home be true to life? Is Reuters really claiming that "the embrace of family and friends" is "a reality-TV drama co-produced by U.S. government propaganda"?)

The real concern with Reuters' coverage is its willingness to cede absolute editorial authority to such "media critics" as Harper's publisher John MacArthur or U. Penn. professor Carolyn Marvin. In the article, MacArthur and Marvin are allowed to draw extroardinarily vast conclusions--"The failure here," says Marvin, "was that the news media got to thinking the government could be trusted to reflect reality"--without a single quote in response. Reuters' only attempt at soliciting such a response was the following:

A spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Florida had no comment when asked about assertions that the heroism tale was government propaganda.

Well, duh. If I were asked point-blank whether my website were full of government propaganda, I'd probably refuse to comment too. If Reuters' sources were alleging that the rescue was staged, couldn't it at least have cited some of the government's earlier denials?

This isn't the first time Reuters has given MacArthur a platform to spout his views unchallenged. Back in March, he had an entire article to himself:

Media Accused of Aiding U.S. Propaganda
David Morgan – Reuters
2 May 2003

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - It is one of the most famous images of the war in Iraq -- a U.S. soldier scaling a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and draping the Stars and Stripes over the black metal visage of the ousted despot.

But for Harper's magazine publisher John MacArthur, that same image of U.S. military victory is also indicative of a propaganda campaign being waged by the Bush administration.

"It was absolutely a photo-op created for (U.S. President George W.) Bush's re-election campaign commercials," MacArthur said in an interview. "CNN, MSNBC and Fox swallowed it whole."

In 1992, MacArthur wrote "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War," a withering critique of government and media actions that he says misled the public after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

In MacArthur's opinion, little has changed during the latest Iraq war, prompting him to begin work on an updated edition of "Second Front". U.S. government public relations specialists are still concocting bogus stories to serve government interests, he says, and credulous journalists stand ready to swallow it up...

As Harper's publisher, MacArthur oversees a 153-year-old political and literary magazine he helped save from financial ruin 20 years ago with money from the foundation named after his billionaire grandparents, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur.

While MacArthur accuses news outlets generally of avoiding opposition stands, his own magazine has been vitriolic towards Bush, describing the president in its May issue as a leader who "counts his ignorance as a virtue and regards his lack of curiosity as a sign of moral strength."

On what basis does MacArthur believe that the fall of the statue was staged? The now-debunked claim that it was manipulated by CNN? Unless MacArthur has some special sources in Iraq we haven't heard of--and which the Reuters report doesn't reveal--there's no evidence whatsoever to support his allegations. Yet the government's response is given only two perfunctory paragraphs:

White House spokesman Scott McClellan denied the existence of any administration propaganda campaign and predicted the American public would reject such notions as ridiculous.

A Pentagon spokesman also denied high-level planning in the appearance of the American flag in Baghdad. "It sure looked spontaneous to me," said Marine Lieutenant Colonel Mike Humm.

Given that the clear implication of MacArthur's statements is that some of the most memorable images of the entire war represent a fraud, one would expect the article to take a somewhat skeptical approach. But MacArthur is never challenged on this, or on any other of his pronouncements (e.g., "On the propaganda side, the New York Times is more responsible for making the case for war than any other newspaper or any other news organisation"). Because he's a "media critic," he's immune.

I find this approach to news reporting simply mind-boggling. Anyone who writes about public affairs can be a "media critic" if necessary. What's more, this critic happens to be the publisher of a political magazine. If William Randolph Hearst were attacking his competitors as promoting Spanish propaganda, do you think Reuters would give him a pass?

Just because someone criticizes the media doesn't mean that they don't have their own set of political assumptions that should be tested. For instance, it might interest the reader to know that Professor Marvin signed a strongly-worded anti-war statement back in November. (She's also co-written a rather bizarre piece on the totemic nature of sacrifice in war, with reflections on Iraq ("During the Persian Gulf war, notable for the ephemerality of its unifying effect, only 147 Americans died, a poor totem sacrifice") and Christianity ("Those who worship the son who died at the heavenly father's command revere the totem principle, that only our own god has the right to kill our own, just as surely as those who revere the soldier son, who dies at the command of patriarchal generals").) This doesn't disqualify her as a commentator, but Reuters considers her political views entirely irrelevant to the story. After all, she's a media critic; she has to be objective...

Worst of all, Deanna Wrenn has now come forward to say that she didn't even write the piece (link via Volokh):

Here's what I sent last week to Reuters, a British news agency that compiles news reports from all over the world:

"ELIZABETH -- In this small county seat with just 995 residents, the girl everyone calls Jessi is a true heroine -- even if reports vary about Pfc. Jessica Lynch and her ordeal in Iraq.

" ‘I think there's a lot of false information about her story,' said Amber Spencer, a clerk at the town's convenience store.

"Palestine resident J.T. O'Rock was hanging an American flag and yellow ribbon on his storefront in Elizabeth in preparation for Lynch's return.

"Like many residents here, he considers Lynch a heroine, even if newspaper and TV reports say her story wasn't the same one that originally attracted movie and book deals."

What I typed and filed for Reuters last week goes on in that vein. They asked me if they could use my byline, which I had typed at the beginning of the story I sent, and I said that would be no problem....

I'm not sure what reporter or editor actually wrote the story that has my byline attached.

Reuters did use one quote from the story I wrote last week in the final paragraphs of one of their earliest Lynch stories, which was sent out for publication early Tuesday morning.

By Tuesday afternoon, the quote was reduced to one sentence. Still, my byline appeared.

By Tuesday night, the quote was gone and Reuters was siphoning information from television reports. The beginning of the story was toned down. The part about "media fiction" was removed. But even then, my byline remained.

I understand that news wire services often edit, add, remove or write new leads for stories. What amazed me was that a story could have my byline on it when I contributed only a few sentences at the end -- and in later versions I didn't contribute anything at all.

The stories contained apparently fresh material attributed to sources I did not interview.

Maybe that's the way that wire service works.

I would like to make it abundantly clear that somebody at Reuters wrote the story, not me....

Apparently, when Reuters asked me last week if they could use my byline, they weren't talking about the story I wrote for them last week. They were talking about a story I never wrote.

That was the misunderstanding.

By the way, I asked Reuters to remove my byline. They didn't....

So which editor at Reuters rewrote the story without changing the byline? Who's playing the editorial version of Jayson Blair? Who's going to get fired for this? Sounds like we need a media critic on the case.




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