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Lynch Now Networks’ Objective

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

At NBC, executives are aware of the turmoil over the truth in the Lynch story and are philosophical. Much of the BBC report has been discredited, said Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment. “All made-for-TV movies based on fact have some fiction in them.” In any case, the lure is unchanged. “She is a heroic figure,” he said.

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The flap over what happened -- and over who hyped it -- could temper enthusiasm for future Lynch projects. HarperCollins has commissioned a book by Mohammed Odeh Rehaief, the lawyer who tipped Americans to Lynch’s whereabouts and then won political asylum in the U.S. Scheduled for publication in October, with a rumored $300,000 advance, the book is tentatively titled “Rescue in Nasiriya: The Untold Story of American POW Jessica Lynch’s Harrowing Ordeal and the Iraqi Who Risked Everything to Save Her.” Editor David Hirshey told National Public Radio, “We may have been premature in slapping the title on it.”

Whatever the title -- A&E; named its upcoming movie “Saving Jessica Lynch” -- her story stood out.

In the ambush at Nasiriyah, there was another woman captured by the Iraqis. Shoshana Johnson received a fair amount of attention but not nearly the star treatment accorded Lynch.

A 30-year-old single mother, Johnson left the University of Texas at El Paso four years ago to enlist in the Army and pursue her dream of becoming a professional chef. A cook attached to the 507th, she was shot in both ankles; on video footage aired by Al Jazeera television, she looked terrified of her interrogators. Once released, Johnson got an offer of a scholarship at a culinary school, a call from Oprah Winfrey and a reception by the Congressional Black Caucus.

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“The initial stories had Lynch fighting to the last bullet, which makes her useful as a symbol of the new figure in our ‘ethnic platoon’ of American soldiers -- the Woman Warrior,” said Richard Slotkin, a novelist and historian at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He also said he thinks Johnson, who is African American, was less of a media draw because “her race makes her less eligible for the ‘white captive’ role.” And, he added, she was not rescued first.

Competition for the Lynch story has been so fierce that two of the nation’s most influential media companies stooped to name-calling. The New York Times reported that CBS’ bid to get the story raised concerns about news independence because it offered to use its Viacom connections -- including a book deal with Simon & Schuster -- to lure the former POW. CBS fired back, citing the discredited reporting of Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter fired for fabricating, among other tales, a description of Lynch’s family home as near tobacco fields.

At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, staffers say Lynch is aware of the media frenzy at her door, which is guarded by military police. Focused on her recovery, she is expected to make decisions later.

When she goes home, which hospital spokesmen say could happen in July or August, she will find life on Mayberry Run Road a bit changed. A renovation project that started out as a way to make the Lynch home handicap-accessible grew as contributions poured in from all over the country. More bedrooms and central air are now part of the plan.

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Then there are the tourists. Local officials say 20 or 30 cars drive by daily, sightseers eager for a glimpse of the home where Jessica’s story started.


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