COMMENTS: Pentagon Propaganda

The fever has finally broken. The campus killings at Virginia Tech no longer preoccupy the nightly newscasts. As attention turned to wider issues of war only CBS filed a follow-up from Blacksburg. Instead, the lead on all three networks and the Story of the Day concerned Capitol Hill hearings into flaws--actually downright fictions--in the Pentagon's war propaganda effort. A pair of false stories were investigated: how Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan and how Jessica Lynch was captured in Iraq.

Tillman, the former NFL player turned commando who was killed by his own comrades, received the lion's share of attention. He was given a posthumous Silver Star medal and a high-profile funeral under the pretext that he had died in a battle with Taliban guerrillas. In fact he died by accident under so-called friendly fire. CBS' David Martin repeated Tillman's brother's charges that "false reports were concocted by the military to create a hero" and NBC's Jim Miklaszewski cited the family's suspicion that the army's motive was "to cover up bad news in Iraq" by turning the funeral into a "nationally televised ceremony."

CBS' Jim Axelrod inquired whether the Tillman fable was orchestrated by political operatives at the White House and concluded that "it is unclear who knew what" about the death. Unnamed aides for President George Bush told Axelrod that the President discovered the truth belatedly "from news reports" and not from the military even though he "publicly praised" Tillman two days before the deceptive funeral.

Lynch herself appeared before the House panel to heap scorn on the portrayal of herself as the "little girl Rambo from the hills of West Virginia who went down fighting." In reality, she testified, her weapon had jammed. ABC's Jake Tapper (subscription required) noted that when the news media published those false reports they were "never disputed by the Pentagon."

While the Pentagon public relations machine looked devious, the news media should not just wriggle off the hook for their role in these deceptions. They were complicit in the hype that turned both Tillman and Lynch into fabricated heroes. It was TV news, not the Pentagon, that publicized the Tillman funeral. Journalists, not flacks, ensured that Lynch became a household word.

Yet none of the reporting on the hearings included a hint of self-criticism.


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