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CMR TOUCHES NERVE AT WASHINGTON POST

June 30, 2003
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Washington Postreporter Dana Priest, primary author of a June 17, 2003, article regarding former prisoner of war Pfc. Jessica Lynch, has taken issue with the CMR article titled “Did Feminist Bias Distort Washington Post Story on Jessica Lynch,” which was posted on the CMR website, www.cmrlink.org, on June 24.

(That article and an additional one asking questions about the story of Pfc. Lynch are posted on the website under “Issues/Women in Combat.”)

On June 24 Ms. Priest sent an e-mail response and asked that it be printed (actually posted) by CMR. We are happy to do so, together with the response sent to her by CMR President Elaine Donnelly on June 26. (See below.)

The original CMR story referred to Dana Priest’s June 21, 1997, bogus article about a non-existent “Tailhook Underground” conspiracy theory, which Priest reported as if it were true. Priest had every opportunity to ask Donnelly about her alleged involvement with the phantom group, which Donnelly had never heard of, but she did not do so.

For more information on the bogus “Tailhook Underground” conspiracy story, as reported in 1997 by Dana Priest, please click on the URL below.

CMR stands by the June 24 story in question, and has challenged the Washington Postto improve its coverage on issues involving women in the military.

*****

To: Elaine Donnelly

From: Dana Priest

Date: June 24, 2003

 

I have always considered Elaine Donnelly's quest for facts--albeit to support her own point of view--to be a healthy part of the process of evaluating the military's efforts at gender intergration and, more broadly, military operations.

So it was with great disappointment that I read the June 24 column about my coverage of Pfc. Jessica Lynch. The column offers such a naïve understanding of how the media works, how Washington Post reporters do their jobs, and of my own reporting, that I feel compelled to correct just a few of most serious errors.

The media's attempt to cover war is subject to the same 'fog of war' that is often assigned to people in battle. Events are so fast-paced, initial reports often turn out to be incomplete or wrong, and people in the midst of combat themselves often have a hard time seeing the context in which they are operating.

Having covered the invasion of Panama (from Panama), and then Operation Desert Fox in 1998, the 1999 Kosovo air war, and the most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from Washington, I know that even the basic facts--where ground units are located or what targets are bombed on a given day--can be hard to pin down. It's not because people are trying tomanipulate the facts, or because they necessarily have an agenda, it's often because intial understandings turn out to be wrong or skewed by degrees. That's one reason why historians are still unearthing new realities about World War II and every war since. It's the nature of war, and the nature of covering war.

The initial Lynch reporting is exactly the same. Nothing more. Nothing less. The three reporters who put the stories together relied on different, trusted, credible officials from several different agencies and branches of government--none of whom were, as Donnelly so derisively suggests "perhaps a low-level civilian or military woman."

Which leads me to her personal attack on me. In her effort to squeeze everything into her pro-or-anti-feminist prism, Donnelly somehow links a seven-year-old story I wrote about Lt. Carey Lohrenz, to the Lynch reporting. Her conspiratorial tone is worthy of a bad novel: "Seven years later, the same Dana Priest was listed as a contributor to the June 3 Jessica Lynch story...she also took the lead in writing the lengthy June 17 damage-control piece."

Ah Hah! Catch you! At what?

Her answer: Wanting to "create the impressionistic woman-warrior legend in order to push the women-in-combat cause."

You might think that had I had a desire to push such an agenda, I might have written a little bit more about gender in the intervening seven-years. Instead, I authored more than 500 articles, mostly on the U.S. military, on issues such as the regional Commanders-in-Chiefs (which won the Gerald R. Ford Defense Writing Award), U.S. Special Forces operations around the world (an all-male unit, by the way, in which there are no low-level or high-level women to rely on as sources), air operations over Kosovo, the Apache debacle there, the war on terrorism, in Iraq, and the CIA's paramilitary operations.

Then there was my book --THE MISSION: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military--which won praise from The National Review, Weekly Standard, Economist, New York Times, and New York Review of Book. But I'm certain Donnelly had little to say about it, because it did not touch on the one issue--gender--through which she sees all.

Oh, and by the way, I traveled to 20 countries to report these things, mostly in the company of all male units and that didn't seem to be an issue with anyone either.

Finally, to compare my reporting to the Jayson Blair matter is slanderous--in spirit and intent. This was a simple case of the initial intelligence reports--which we reported--being wrong. And a certain amount of Army unwillingness not to correct the record for their own reasons—some of it because they probably didn't know all the facts right away themselves. The Post tried, without much success, to update the story in the weeks after the initial account, but did not go back with full force until several weeks ago.

I'm not demanding a correction because I know that would do nothing to correct the mind-set that perpetuates the fantasies contained in her column. But I request that you print this letter and think twice before you write such fiction again.

Respectfully,

Dana Priest

 

*****

 

Elaine Donnelly to Dana Priest – June 26, 2003

Dear Ms. Priest,

I have received your memo, and will be happy to publish it on my website, together with additional information to put it into context.

Discerning readers will notice that you have not denied the completely fabricated "Tailhook Underground" story that you wrote on June 21, 1997. I plan to republish that article, along with the unedited text of my July 12 letter refuting it.

In ways too numerous to mention, the bogus "Tailhook Underground" story you wrote in 1997—without any attempt to verify the "facts" or to question the motives of the "DoD officials" who fed it to you—did grievous harm to the institution of the Navy, and to me personally, for many years.

The record of bias at the Post is even more obvious when considering the long list of significant stories brought to light by CMR over the past ten years--most of which have been simply ignored by several reporters who receive publications from me on a regular basis.

Thank you for mentioning your time in Panama, which reminded me of the story of Army Capt. Linda Bray. The sensationalized version of the Capt. Bray story, which described the unsuspecting soldier as storming barriers and killing Panamanian soldiers in a fierce "woman-warrior" assault, had to be withdrawn because the facts did not support the legend.

At the time the tale made international news and was hailed by many notables as a genuine woman-in-combat story. These included then-Presidential Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, columnist Anna Quindlen, and then-Rep. Patricia Schroeder, who immediately proposed legislation to test women in combat, which was endorsed by the editorial page of the Washington Post. In many ways Capt. Bray's story was a forerunner of what Daniel Henninger has dubbed the "JessicaLynchStory." (Wall Street Journal, June 20)

You may disagree with my opinions, but I have written no "fiction" or anything that is even remotely "slanderous" to anyone. What I have done is express an informed opinion, based on objective facts as well as personal experience, which invites the reader to consider an alternative explanation for the Post's overblown April 3 story about the actions of Jessica Lynch when her unit was ambushed on March 23. Your own ombudsman, Michael Getler, quoted a reader who "smelled an agenda" in the Post's April 3 headline story long before I posted my piece on the CMR website.

Related allegations from international media critics that the Americans had "staged" the daring rescue of Pfc. Lynch, which many people consider implausible, are also a matter of intense public controversy and debate.

Note that my article stated that even if the original Post story had "nothing to do" with the ongoing push for women in combat, the paper deserves no laurels for publishing a powerful but untrue story that misled the world. The April 20 piece by Michael Getler discredited the April 3 front page story, but it was buried on page B06, where it was seen by almost no one.

The key point of my article is implied throughout. It was not enough, in either the Lynch or Lohrenz stories, to borrow the credibility of the US military in publishing a false or sensationalized story based on unnamed "US officials."

I have years of experience with Pentagon public affairs people at all levels, high and low, and find most of them to be hard-working, respectful, and very helpful. A few self-interested officials, however, have acted dishonorably. Attempts to discredit truthful articles that I have written have persisted for years, and were amplified by your June 21, 1997, article. One of these days, perhaps you will tell me why you forgot your customary professionalism as a journalist in writing that story.

BTW, I used the phrase "low-level" ("low-ranking" may have been clearer) in order to avoid any unintended impression that DoD spokeswoman Victoria Clarke had anything to do with the April 3 Jessica Lynch story.

I could be more specific if you revealed your sources, but I know that that won't happen. Over the years many people have noticed and commented on the tendency of some Post reporters to base certain stories—many of which are subsequently discredited—on "unnamed sources."

Which brings me to my reference to the "new journalism" techniques of Jayson Blair, which obviously bothers you. You will have to take that up with your Managing Editor, Steve Coll. New York Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick quoted Mr. Coll in a June 18 article titled "Reports on Soldier's Capture are Partly Discounted by Paper." According to Kirkpatrick, Coll said that the paper was "still pleased" with the April 3 story, which he described as "good reporting."

It was this comment that gave rise to the "Jayson Blair" reference, which you find so objectionable. If Coll never made such a statement, and if I erred in trusting the (now diminished) credibility of the New York Times, I will be happy to correct the record.

Assuming that the quote is accurate, it struck me as a comment that Jayson Blair or his erstwhile sponsors might have made. It also reminded me of the newspaper photographer who "digitally enhanced" a war photo to make it "better," who was mentioned by Henninger in his June 20 opinion piece. As Henninger put it, "it's not hard to imagine he [Blair] thought that what he wrote was, in the larger scheme of things, you know, more or less 'the truth.' "

The "fog of war" is very real. I have heard (and am still hearing) disturbing rumors about Jessica Lynch. The CMR website has nowhere near the impact of the Washington Post, but I would never have published such rumors, much less given them the headline treatment.

I challenge you and the Washington Post to seize the opportunity to clearly distinguish your paper from "Jayson-Blair-type-journalism," a term that I did not invent. Like it or not, the phrase has become part of the lexicon of public discussion about newspapers in general.

The best way for the Post to preclude such a comparison is to consistently produce stories that are objective and credible, regardless of the subject, and to avoid expressing pride in flawed stores that are not deserving of praise.

If the Post does that on the Jessica Lynch story and related news regarding women in combat, I will be the first to report the change.

I stand by what I have written. I also believe that I have the right to express my opinions—especially those that are based on credible documents, research and information from numerous sources, and my own personal experience—without prior permission from the Washington Post.

Regards,

Elaine Donnelly

 

CC: Kent Masterson Brown, Esq.

      Frank Northam, Esq.

 

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