What Nerve: NYT Blames 'Myth-Building' Military for Media's Failure to Cover War Heroes

Borking Sgt. York?

Sgt. Alvin York, hero of the First World War, is the ostensible subject of France-based reporter Craig Smith’s “Revisiting Sgt. York and a Time When Heroes Stood Tall.” Do they not stand tall anymore?

Smith then wonders, apparently without irony, why it’s so hard to be a hero these days in the mainstream media.

His story begins: “On Oct. 8, 1918, Cpl. Alvin Cullum York and 16 other American doughboys stumbled upon more than a dozen German soldiers having breakfast in a boggy hollow here.

“The ensuing firefight ended with the surrender of 132 Germans and won Corporal York a promotion to sergeant, the Congressional Medal of Honor and a place in America's pantheon of war heroes.

“Now another battle is unfolding as rival researchers use global positioning systems and computer programs, old maps and military reports to try to establish the exact site of the fighting on that day 88 years ago. Their heated examinations do not challenge the essential heroism of Sergeant York, yet such scrutiny helps explain why it is hard to be a hero these days.”

Smith blames a "myth-building" military.

 “There are other reasons, too, of course. Wars are often unpopular clashes fraught with moral ambiguity, and while the news media are often attracted to heroism, they also like to challenge myth building.

“The military's attempt to turn Pfc. Jessica Lynch into a hero after the invasion of Iraq unraveled when it emerged that she had not emptied her rifle at advancing Iraqi soldiers, as first reported. The initial accounts of Cpl. Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan in April 2004 came undone when it was disclosed that the corporal, a former N.F.L. star, had been killed by members of his own unit. Military abuses now have a longer shelf life than acts of derring-do.”

The Times' saturation coverage of Abu Ghraib certainly bears that out. And remember that it was the Washington Post that initially misreported the Lynch incident, and that first reports from the battlefield are generally flawed.

Smith blames gullible publics of the past for the glowing notices given to war heroes like Sgt. York, and pats the modern press corps on the back for avoiding such “uplifting tales of uncomplicated bravery.”

It was easier to create heroic stories in 1918 when the press was more pliable and the public more gullible, and the popular media had a fondness for uplifting tales of uncomplicated bravery. Though newspaper articles at the time refer to members of Sergeant York's platoon who challenged the accounts of that day, the doubters were given only enough attention to dismiss them.”

Smith delves into York revisionism, treating it as an early adjunct of the alleged hero-making of Lynch and Tillman.

But it’s not as if the Times has been busy building up war heroes from Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s one thing to question the initial Lynch and Tillman stories. But what’s the excuse for the Times and the rest of the media for ignoring today’s certified war heroes, just the convenient sort of war story that doesn’t require being embedded on dangerous patrols in Iraq or Afghanistan?

Rich Noyes of the Media Research Center recently documented the paucity of coverage of decorated war heroes in a special report, “Touting Military Misdeeds, Hiding Heroes.”

As Noyes writes: "These stories aren't military secrets. Nearly every surviving medal recipient has told their story publicly, and many are recounted in Home of the Brave, the last book by former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, just published." Yet he found that since the war on terror begin, “14 of the country's top 20 medal recipients have gone unmentioned by ABC, CBS and NBC.” Here’s a list of those 20, along with details of the heroics that merited their awards.

With more space, the New York Times did no better. A Nexis search found that of the 20 war heroes listed in Noyes’ study, the Times devoted a full story on only two of them, while another soldier’s valor was cited in a single sentence in a separate story.

Richard Stevenson reported on June 10, 2005 that Master Sergeant Donald Hollenbaugh, Special Operations U.S. Army, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his service in Fallujah, Iraq, in a presentation by Vice President Dick Cheney (whose presence no doubt boosted the chance of coverage).

Eric Schmitt reported March 30, 2005 on the ultimate sacrifice of Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith, U.S. Army, the first Medal of Honor winner from the Iraq war. The award was presented to his widow and his family by President Bush on April 4, 2005, on the two-year anniversary of Smith's death defending troops at the Baghdad Airport on April 4, 2003, a battle also marked by the Times in a front-page story grimly headlined "Medals for His Valor, Ashes for His Wife."

There was also one line in a separate story devoted to Colonel James H. Coffman Jr, U.S Army, who was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for fighting off insurgents at a police station in Iraq.

For more examples of bias from the New York Times, visit TimesWatch.

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