Chapter 1 Communication in the Information Age
On the evening of April 2, 2003, the television networks’ nightly news aired a brief night-vision video, supplied by the Defense Department, of US forces carrying Private Jessica Lynch to safety after rescuing her from behind enemy lines in Iraq. The next day, in an exclusive on its front page that read like a Hollywood screenplay outline, the Washington Post reported her heroic story. Written from Washington, DC, and based on information supplied by unnamed officials, it told how, after “fighting to the death” and shooting several enemy soldiers, the young maintenance clerk was seriously wounded, captured, and taken to an enemy hospital. A few days later she was daringly rescued by US commandos.Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb, “‘She Was Fighting to the Death’; Details Emerging of W. V. Soldier’s Capture and Rescue,” Washington Post, April 3, 2003, A1. The story echoed through the broadcasting and print news media in the United States, throughout the world, and on the web. The television networks’ morning news shows sent reporters to West Virginia to interview Lynch’s family and friends. A website was established to receive and share tributes to her gallantry and feats.Scott Drake, webmaster of Jessica-Lynch.com, e-mail to Tim Cook, March 6, 2005.
Although the Post’s report mentioned that the story had yet to be confirmed, the Pentagon reaped favorable publicity for the war with this tale of a Rambo-type exploit by an ordinary American girl in the battle against tyranny. This frame, or point of view, was widely used in many accounts of the event. (We explain frames and framing in detail in the section “Media Influences on Politics, Government, and Public Policies” in Chapter 1, Section 3 “Opinion and Commentary”).
Media companies bargained for the rights to Private Lynch’s story. Viacom offered her a package: a prime-time news interview on its CBS television network; a book deal with its publishing house, Simon and Schuster; a music-video host spot on its cable channel MTV2; and a movie contract.Jim Rutenberg, “To Interview Former P.O.W., CBS Offers Stardom,” New York Times, June 16, 2003, A1. Eventually she signed with NBC, which had indicated that it was going to make a TV movie about her whether it had the rights to her story or not. NBC aired its made-for-TV movie Saving Jessica Lynch soon after the Veteran’s Day publication of a book about her ordeal written by a former New York Times reporter with whom she split a $1 million advance.Rick Bragg, I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003). Promoting the book, Ms. Lynch appeared on ABC’s Primetime Live for an interview with Diane Sawyer, NBC’s Today Show, the CBS Late Show with David Letterman, and on CNN’s Larry King Live. She was the subject of a cover story in Time magazine and was featured in Glamour magazine as one of its women of the year.
Accounts in both mass and new media, statements by Private Lynch herself, and a commentary by the Post’s ombudsman (the individual at the newspaper charged with evaluating its stories) almost three months after the original story, indicated that the facts, to the extent they could be verified, were far less heroic.Dana Priest, William Booth, and Susan Schmidt, “A Broken Body, a Broken Story, Pieced Together…,” Washington Post, June 17, 2003, A1 and Michael Getler, “A Long, and Incomplete, Correction,” Washington Post, June 29, 2003, B6. Lynch’s gun had jammed and not been fired. She did not fight or shoot at any enemy soldiers. The rescue may not have been necessary because the Iraqi army had fled from the hospital the previous day, although it probably still controlled the town. Hospital staff had escorted the commandos to her ward. Blogs dissecting and arguing about the media’s rethinking mushroomed. Over two years after the initial event, a former deputy commander at the United States Central Command wrote an op-ed column in the New York Times reminding people that Private Lynch had never claimed to be a hero and denying that the military had played up her rescue for its publicity purposes.Michael DeLong, “Politics During Wartime,” New York Times, April 27, 2007, A7.
The Jessica Lynch story graphically reveals the interconnection of communication, information, and the media, as well as their significance for government and politics. These are the subjects of this chapter.