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The Nation

Lynch Now Networks' Objective

The disputed facts don't matter. The hype of the private's rescue makes her story rights a prize.

June 22, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Jessica Lynch remembers nothing of the ambush that landed her at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but that hasn't stopped the offers from media conglomerates and Hollywood agents vying for exclusive rights to tell her story.

As she fights to regain use of her arms, legs and back, the 20-year-old private from Palestine, W.Va., has become a Rorschach test for the nation's ideological divide over the war in Iraq.

To some, her story is further evidence of Pentagon perfidy, a pattern of exaggeration they say began with inflated estimates of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and ended with the hyped heroism of the soldiers who brought Lynch to safety. To others, her rescue from an Iraqi hospital housing Hussein's Fedayeen fighters is a case of courage, evidence that the military is one of the few institutions of government that delivers -- even amid the fog of war.

And to almost everyone, the Jessica Lynch saga is the latest example of a cutthroat media churning with greed, exploitation and sensationalism.

Some things are not in doubt: Lynch joined the Army out of high school and was serving with the 507th Maintenance Company in the war in Iraq. What happened to her in Iraq, however, depends on who's telling the story.

The convoy she was riding in took a wrong turn. Or it was directed to the wrong place by exhausted American field commanders. Surrounded by Iraqis, she fired back, killing several, a la Rambo. Or she was too injured by the crash of her truck to shoot at anyone. Or she tried to shoot, but her weapon jammed. Captured by Iraqis, she was treated kindly. Or she was abused. She was brought to safety the day before in an ambulance, only to be turned away by U.S. troops. Or she was not. The next day she was rescued by a team of U.S. commandos who knew Iraqi soldiers had abandoned the hospital, which is why the commandos fired blanks. Or they came prepared for a fight.

Still, for all the discrepancies, the offers come. Mesmerized by Lynch's waif-like figure, her blond hair and her war wounds, Hollywood and New York have descended, coupling appeals for exclusive rights with sweeteners like CBS' offer to let her be the host of an MTV special. Given Washington's vilification of Hussein in the run-up to war, it was understandable that Jessica Lynch came to resemble one of those damsels in distress of the silent-movie era, like Mary Pickford tied to the train tracks.

"Some details of the case make her eminently suitable to a melodrama that's been running since the 17th century -- the captivity saga," said Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor specializing in media and cultural studies.

"In the original, the story is about a woman captured by the Indians. It is a saga of innocence at risk and then saved. It's a very potent story."

The myth has been updated, to make Lynch a fighting woman -- reportedly firing her M-16 in a desperate struggle with the enemy in which she is stabbed and shot. But there's a catch. That aspect of the saga may not be true. (It was reported in April by the Washington Post, among others, quoting anonymous sources. In a subsequent story June 17, the Post said that many of the details remain unclear, and that its initial account had been based in part on Iraqi communications intercepted by the National Security Agency.)

No matter. Television thrives on drama, and pictures. Along with the toppling of Hussein's statue in Baghdad, the rescue of Lynch became part of the story line of a successful war.

And, Gitlin said, her story draws on three popular themes: She's on the side of the angels; she's tough; and she is aided by a sympathetic stranger from the other side -- an Iraqi lawyer.

Hollywood's enthusiasm has been somewhat tempered by saturation war coverage and the squishiness of the plot line. Still, NBC is rushing onto the fall schedule an unauthorized two-hour TV movie about Lynch.

NBC executives reportedly have had the story in rewrite since the BBC, in a report last month, called the original version of the Lynch story "one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived." The British network faulted the Pentagon and news media for reports that Lynch had stab and bullet wounds, and it cited witnesses who claimed the special operations troops who rescued her knew Iraqi troops had left.

The Pentagon dismissed the BBC piece as "void of all facts and absolutely ridiculous." Spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Pentagon "never released an account of what happened to Lynch because it didn't have an account. She never told us." Contrary to the BBC report, the Pentagon never claimed that Lynch was slapped in captivity, nor that there were firefights inside the hospital. As for "making a show" of it, Whitman said special operations did not use rubber bullets but did exercise "the right resources, sufficient to get the job done."

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