This is the third column in as many months devoted in whole or in part to the case of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch. If you're tired of it, I can't blame you. But judging from the response to The Post's recent effort to reconstruct how Lynch was captured and rescued, many readers are not yet tired of it, and neither am I.
As I have said before, the issue here is not Lynch, a courageous young soldier who has been through -- and is still going through -- a terrible ordeal. Rather, it is about journalism: about sources and reporters, motivation and manipulation, and finding the truth, as best we can, about a story that became the best known saga of the war in Iraq.
Coverage by Post correspondents during the war and now well into the occupation has been excellent. That is also a reason, from my perspective, why the original Lynch story, which was written from Washington, stands out. It is inconsistent with an otherwise top-notch effort.
On June 17 The Post, to its credit, produced an almost 21/2-page investigative piece looking back at the Lynch capture and rescue. It provided many new details and was a corrective to the initial reporting. The original Post front-page story on April 3 was headlined "She Was Fighting to the Death." It reported, based on unnamed U.S. officials, that Lynch fought fiercely after her unit was ambushed, shot several enemy soldiers and continued firing until running out of ammunition and even after sustaining multiple gunshot wounds. She also was stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in on her position, the story said.
None of that actually happened, according to unnamed military officials cited in the June 17 Post account. But readers didn't find this out on the front-page portion of that story; it was in the continuation on Page A16. The story also said that most U.S. officials "still insisted that their names be withheld from this account." Yet four days earlier, in a story from Lynch's hometown in West Virginia, the New York Times quoted a Defense Department spokesman, Lt. Col. James Casella, as saying, "She wasn't stabbed. She wasn't shot and she has some broken bones."
The front-page segment of the June 17 Post story did refer to "initial news reports, including those in The Washington Post, which cited unnamed U.S. officials . . ." That made it appear that The Post was not alone on the initial story. But The Post story was exclusive. The rest of the world's media picked it up from The Post, which put this tale into the public domain.
The original April 3 story was by staff writers Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb. The June 17 reconstruction was by Dana Priest, who also contributed to the April 3 story, Schmidt and William Booth, who is in Iraq.
The new Post account described itself as a "more thorough but inconclusive cut at history." That is accurate. But it did not address the issues that eat away at the trust of large numbers of readers, many of whom have called or e-mailed to complain. Why did the information in that first story, which was wrong in its most compelling aspects, remain unchallenged for so long? What were the motivations (and even the identities) of the leakers and sustainers of this myth, and why didn't reporters dig deeper into it more quickly? The story had an odor to it almost from the beginning, and other news organizations blew holes in it well before The Post did, though not as authoritatively.
How do these unnamed sources explain putting out this information and not correcting it sooner? Did the government intend to manipulate the press? Was The Post itself reluctant to revisit this episode?
The Washington Times published a front-page story on May 23 quoting an Army spokesman, Col. Joe Curtin, as saying an Army investigation was underway. The Post didn't report that.
The strong and skeptical reader reaction to the initial Lynch story did not come instantly. Certainly, the events described could have taken place. The reaction came hours after that story appeared, when Col. David Rubenstein, commander of the Army hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, where Lynch had been taken, was widely quoted as saying that medical evidence did "not suggest that any of her wounds were caused by either gunshots or stabbing." The Post put a reference to what he said on Page A27, deep inside a story about soldiers killed in the ambush. We now know that Rubenstein spoke the truth, but he has disappeared from print. He was the only one to speak on the record for months, but there is no indication that The Post ever went back to ask him what happened after he made those remarks and whether he was told not to say any more.
Why did none of the other POWs talk about Lynch? Were they told not to? Certainly, Lynch's privacy about her ordeal needs to be protected. But the official curtain of silence has extended to everything about the incident from the start. Why?
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.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.