Selling Pvt. Lynch

From the White House to Random House, the plucky ex-POW has been badly used. But even as the right turned on her, she handled her week in the spotlight like a hero.

Published November 15, 2003 7:54PM (EST)

During the climactic moments of NBC's Sunday night prime-time, made-for-TV movie "Saving Jessica Lynch," viewers watched make-believe U.S. commandos storm an Iraqi hospital to rescue the wounded 19-year-old prisoner of war. Of course, the scene came with a sense of dij` vu, since most people had seen grainy footage of the actual rescue last spring, thanks to riveting night-vision pictures provided by the Pentagon, just hours after Lynch was whisked away, in the first successful liberation of an American POW since World War II.

The depiction of soldiers rushing Lynch out of the Nasiriyah hospital on a stretcher was a dead-on re-creation. Yet something crucial was missing on-screen: the flag U.S. troops dramatically laid across Lynch's chest as they videotaped her rescue. (In retrospect it was the surest tip-off that the mission had been at least partly staged -- it came complete with feel-good props.)

Everyone saw the flag on the incessant news clips last spring. But on NBC Sunday night, the telltale flag was missing. It's as if the Pentagon had out-Hollywooded Hollywood, and the TV producers thought they went too far. Apparently they decided that the idea of draping the stars and stripes over Lynch during the final rescue scene was too over-the-top, too schmaltzy even for them.

Welcome to the strange world of Jessica Lynch Media Week, where seeing was not necessarily believing. As Gary Dorsey of the Baltimore Sun put it, "After the fog of war came the fog of media, followed by the fog of war and media, then clarifications and alternative views, then the fog of publicity and the war of competing media."

With a made-for-TV docudrama, prime-time interviews, a Time magazine cover story, and a new book out, the week represented a chance to find out the truth. Or to at least pick the most appealing version of the truth: NBC's, the Pentagon's, Time Warner's or Random House's.

After being used by the Pentagon, which planted a phony war story about Lynch "fighting to the death" during her capture, and by a White House that refused to correct the record when it became obvious the spin was fiction, Lynch moved into equally dangerous mass media waters. This time she was telling her own story, that of a reluctant star who insists she was no hero. But it was impossible to escape the feeling that she was getting used all over again.

In fact, there's an eerie parallel between the way the Bush administration sold the Lynch saga and the way it sold the war: Having decided the existing case for toppling Saddam Hussein wouldn't sell, it apparently trumped up the evidence. Likewise, someone decided the Lynch capture and rescue wasn't sexy enough on its own -- it had to be tarted up. But then, having been used by the White House, Lynch was treated shabbily by Random House, which flogged her book last week on the disturbing news that she'd been raped -- news Lynch couldn't confirm herself, and about which the evidence is inconclusive. The humble, plucky Lynch came through her ordeals a hero, but the administration and the media certainly did not.

To their credit, Lynch and her family tried to keep a little distance from the media machine madness. For instance, they refused to ink a lucrative deal with any TV network for an authorized miniseries. Instead they wanted to tell her story in a book -- and one written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperman, Rick Bragg. But once she signed the book deal ($500,000 for her, $500,000 for him), that meant she had to promote it, which meant time on the couch with Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, David Letterman and, coming Monday, Larry King.

The talkmeister should be forewarned: The petite, tight-lipped Lynch is one tough interview. Sawyer, notorious for her creepy, how-do-you-really-feel questions designed to elicit some on-camera tears, couldn't get Lynch to budge, even after she pulled out a surprise photograph of the Iraqi hospital room Lynch was held in. Sawyer's voice-over informed viewers this was the first time she'd seen the room since her rescue. The camera zoomed in on Lynch for a reaction. Yes, she calmly replied, that was the room she stayed in.

Things were even rougher for "Today's" Katie Couric, who interviewed Lynch live. Couric ended up doing most of the talking during the Wednesday segment -- 1,530 words compared to Lynch's 950. And approximately 30 different times Lynch gave one-word answers to Couric's questions. Her favorite being the lonely, "Yeah," which she offered up 22 times.

Lynch appeared at times surprisingly detached from her own tale. She said she only watched parts of NBC's Sunday night movie about her life and has not read all of Bragg's book, 500,000 copies of which were shipped to stores on Veteran's Day.

There were signs the incessant media hype outpaced public interest. After all, it was Elizabeth Smart, the former kidnapped Utah teen, and her CBS real-life drama, that won the ratings war Sunday night, crowning her America's Recovering Sweetheart. Asked by the Hartford Courant if her store was ordering extra copies of Lynch's new biography, one bookstore owner guffawed, "You must be kidding! Who cares? This story has been told to the nth degree."

Even readers of Lynch's hometown newspaper seemed underwhelmed. In an online -- and unscientific -- poll conducted by West Virginia's Parkersberg News and Sentinel, the daily asked readers if they planned to buy Lynch's book; 72 percent said no.

No doubt the Bush administration hoped viewers and readers would stay away. The Lynch rollout came during a bleak week for the White House, as it hastily summoned Paul Bremer, its top administrator in Iraq, back to Washington for crisis talks on how to quickly fix the political and security mess in Iraq. And Lynch's insistence on national television that she felt used by the Pentagon for making a show of her rescue and for telling absurd tales about her alleged heroics was just the latest cut at the White House's shrinking credibility when it comes to the war in Iraq.

Also, her personal Iraq tale about an unprepared group of lost, confused and exhausted soldiers making wrong turn after wrong turn before being boxed into an ambush where 11 soldiers were killed is not exactly the stuff of recruiting brochures.

Meanwhile, Fox News was noticeably shut out of the Lynch sweepstakes, the only major broadcast or news network that did not get any access to the former POW. So Fox talker Bill O'Reilly focused on reports that topless photos of Lynch were reportedly purchased by Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, who now says he won't publish them.

Note this absurd exchange between O'Reilly and ABC's Sawyer, out front plugging her exclusive interview "get":

O'Reilly: By the time you talked to her, this topless thing wasn't out yet, right?

Sawyer: No.

O'Reilly: OK.

Sawyer: But we've checked and I don't think she's going to have a comment on it.

O'Reilly: No, I wouldn't either. But -- and isn't it a sad commentary that this is the country we live in now?

Sawyer: Yes, and somebody sold these. I mean this ...

O'Reilly: Of course they did. I mean, you know, we're going to have this Paris Hilton video tomorrow. You know about this thing?

Sawyer: You're going to have it here?

O'Reilly: We have it, yes. We have it right here.

Sawyer: Are you going to put it on?

O'Reilly: I'm going to put some of it on, not a lot. I'm going to show the folks tomorrow. But isn't it a sad commentary that everybody now ...

Sawyer: Why are you going to put it on?

O'Reilly: Going to put what?

Sawyer: Why are you going to put it on?

O'Reilly: I'm not going to put on the sex stuff.

Sawyer: Oh, all right.

O'Reilly was referring to a 3-year-old sex tape of celebrity rich girl Paris Hilton that's currently making the Internet rounds. Lumping Lynch with the lurid Hilton sex tape seemed symbolic of the way the right has tried to discredit her, once she blew the whistle on the Pentagon for hyping her heroics.

"I won't read Lynch's book either. There's just something not right about all of this. I don't care for the fact that a nasty finger is being pointed at our Military," read one bulletin board post at "This is not the time to condemn, it's the time to support."

The other constant conservative online theme during Lynch Week was that her ordeal simply confirmed that women should not be in the military. Lynch, wrote conservative commentator Chuck Muth, "is now being used by anti-war liberals to cast further doubt on America's mission in Iraq, instead of casting doubt on the dubious -- some would say outright stupid -- Army decision to put women in combat and harm's way in order to placate loud-mouthed feminists. It's LONG past time for Jessica Lynch's 15 minute of fame to be over."

But despite the right's fervent wishes that she'd go away, Lynch has been everywhere lately. Last week was book rollout week, which meant getting photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair's year-end Hall of Fame issue. And it meant sharing Glamour magazine Women of the Year honors with Britney Spears, who's out promoting her own product this week -- a new CD -- and who also sat down, exclusively, for a Sawyer interview of her own. (On ABC Tuesday night, we learned Lynch was a "prissy" child. On ABC Thursday night, we learned from the Madonna-kissing Spears that "when I was younger, I used to run around my house, naked, when I was 13.")

The fact POW Lynch kept bumping into pop tart Spears out on the marketing matrix wasn't the week's only absurdity. Watching competing media outlets scrap over Lynch was sadly amusing. Time magazine devoted 22 pages, complete with 19 photos and illustrations, to the Lynch saga, while online asked readers, "Is Jessica Lynch a hero? Yes or no?" So, in a classic jab, rival Newsweek, trying to piss on Time's Lynch bonanza, committed just 500 words to her in this week's issue, opting with the dismissive lead, "The Jessica Lynch blitz isn't a feel-good celebration for everyone."

As for the book, "I Am a Soldier, Too," Time magazine managed to condense it to 4,500 words, without losing much in the process. Bragg does his best to rev up the story and give it a real country holler feel ("Bad luck followed the little caravan like a hungry dog"). But he seems to be straining just to spread the story out over 207 pages. And that where's-the-beef quality served to highlight the one sensational allegation Bragg makes -- that during a three-hour block between the time her Humvee crashed and she was brought to the hospital, Lynch, unconscious, was tortured and raped by her captors. The passage, which takes up just two paragraphs in the book, grabbed headlines around the world.

Lynch told Sawyer upfront the whole rape notion was "questionable," but Bragg said Lynch's parents wanted it included in the book. Still, the red-hot allegation, stuck inside an otherwise sleepy read, couldn't escape the whiff of publishing desperation that accompanied it.

As one furious Philadelphia Inquirer book reviewer put it, "Last week's revelation that she was sexually assaulted during those lost three hours, timed specifically to promote this book and her appearances, is repugnant, virtually unparalleled in the rancid history of publicity. It's rape as a marketing tool."

Whether Lynch was in fact sexually assaulted may never be known. (Iraqi doctors who examined her insist she was not.) But it's hard to attribute lofty journalistic motives to a publisher who decided to introduce such an inflammatory accusation, based on relatively sketchy evidence, into a story that's already drowning in contradictions and revisions.

Likewise, NBC had high hopes for its Lynch movie. "This story is Mission: Impossible, but it's real," one NBC insider told Daily Variety last spring, before some of the shine began to fade. "It's as good a story as you can get from this war. It's uplifting, heroic, compelling and dramatic."

But in the end, after seven script revisions, the disclaimer that popped up on the screen Sunday night said it all: "This motion picture is based on a true story. However, some names have been changed and some characters, scenes and events in whole or part have been created for dramatic purpose."

That's because NBC failed to get the rights to Lynch's story, and had to rely on the tale of a 32-year-old Iraqi attorney, Odeh al-Rehaif, and his tell-all book, "Because Each Life Is Precious: Why an Iraqi Man Risked Everything for Private Jessica Lynch." Clearly al-Rehaif put his life, and the life of his family, in danger by alerting U.S. troops to Lynch's whereabouts in an effort to get her rescued. And in the end he was rewarded with political asylum in the States, a job at a Republican-run lobbying firm in Washington, as well as a handsome, six-figure book deal. (Not to mention the fact NBC turned al-Rehaif into a dashing Andy Garcia-like star, not the Jon Lovitz look-alike he is in real life.)

On-screen, al Rehaif came across as Ahmad Chalabi's long-lost cousin; a native Iraqi who laid out the kind of script Pentagon war planners dreamt about. But like Chalabi and his rosy pre-war prediction that U.S. troops would be welcomed as liberators in Iraq and resistance would crumble with Saddam's collapse, al-Rehaif's tale of an Iraq desperate for U.S. intervention, of Iraqis with an almost insatiable love of Americans, had some holes in it. It's not Swiss cheese holes like Chalabi's fantasy, but al-Rehaif's claim that his wife worked as a nurse in the hospital where Lynch was treated have been dismissed by others on staff there. "He's a big liar who should be hung by his ears," one Iraqi nurse told ABC.

And al-Rehaif's most chilling, dramatic claim, that while peering through a glass panel into her room he saw a Fedayeen soldier slap Lynch during an interrogation, was denied by a hospital staffer in a Washington Post report this summer: "Never happened. That's some Hollywood crap you'd tell the Americans."

Tuesday on ABC, Lynch herself denied al-Rehaif's graphic account of a beat-down, telling Sawyer it never happened. That may explain why Lynch refused to meet with al-Rehaif last month when he come calling in Palestine, W.Va., in search of an audience with the former POW on the heels of his own book release.

Wednesday morning on the "Today," show, Lynch softened her tone, saying she wants to meet with al-Rehaif and thank him, but that she "want[ed] to do it on my own time, whenever there's no media around."

As soon as the current marketing rollout wraps up and al-Rehaif and Lynch send the press away, they should be able to get some time to themselves.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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