Unfinished Business

Will the 'News' Revise Its Lynch Stories?

Everyone knows the original Jessica Lynch plot, as scripted by anonymous sources and let fly by the Pentagon: The young Army private was captured, shot and stabbed, roughed up in a Nasiriyah hospital, then rescued by an Iraqi lawyer and U.S. troops who braved enemy fire to get her out. And by now every journalist has heard the alternative plot—the one in which Lynch's bones were apparently crushed in a humvee accident, Iraqi doctors know of no evidence she was tortured, and our troops met no resistance when they went in to save her. But while The New York Times, Newsday, and the New York Post have all found a way to acknowledge the newly emerging details, the Daily News has shied away from the story since late May.

The original story began to fall apart when numerous news outlets sent reporters to interview the hospital staff, and the BBC weighed in with a critical documentary last month. "[Lynch] wasn't stabbed. She wasn't shot and she has some broken bones," a Pentagon source recently told The New York Times. The Washington Post published a front-pager on June 17, collecting voluminous evidence that contradicts both the original script and the Post's own initial reports. Aside from reprinting a Richard Cohen column from the Post and recapping a May 29 Associated Press report, the News has failed to revisit the original story in any significant fashion.

Flashback to April 3. On the cover of the News is a photo of Lynch, along with the screaming headline "Jessica Tortured." The accompanying story, by Maki Becker, piles one sensational, thinly sourced detail on another. For example, the torture claim is attributed to "an Iraqi man who alerted U.S. troops where to find [Lynch]." Added corroboration comes from a P.O.W. expert who says that Lynch's broken bones are a sure sign of torture, and that Iraqi soldiers were known to use steel bars to break their prisoners' limbs. "Officials" claim that Lynch suffered "at least one bullet wound." And the News cites a report in The Washington Post for the fact that Lynch emptied her gun while firing on assailants. (The Post has since backed off that detail.)

Cut to April 5. Under the headline "Jessica Took Awful Beating," a Daily News story on page 8 states that "it's likely" Lynch was tortured, according to an Iraqi man "who told the Americans where to find her" and who saw Lynch slapped by a Fedayeen.

Eventually, the Lynch tipster was publicly identified as Iraqi lawyer Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief. Al-Rehaief and his family have since been moved to the U.S., where HarperCollins gave him a reported $300,000 advance to write a book about his role in Lynch's rescue. But by mid May, the original script had been discredited, and HarperCollins announced it was shifting the focus of al-Rehaief's book from Lynch's rescue to life under Saddam Hussein. In the Washington Post article of June 17, hospital staffers denied many details of al-Rehaief's account, including his claim that Lynch was slapped around by a Fedayeen.

Is the News sticking by the story that Lynch was tortured? Newsspokesperson Ken Frydman says, "The News reported the first day that her father said she hadn't been shot, and the rest remains unresolved."


Toxic Tale Spiked

Did New York Times lawyer George Freeman spike a Times investigation of alleged environmental hazards at a recreational park in Pelham Manor, New York—the affluent village where he lives? That is the question some area residents are asking, as their campaign to have Shore Park tested for possible toxins has been ignored by local officials and deemed unworthy of coverage by the Times.

This past January, Marc Ferris, a freelance reporter for the TimesWestchester Weekly section, was in contact with Shore Park activist Laura Esposito for about two weeks, interviewing her, reviewing documents about the alleged contamination, and arranging a session with a Times photographer.

"Right after I met with Marc," Esposito told the Voice, "he called and said his editor got a call from a Pelham Manor resident who was also a lawyer at the Times, saying to the editor, 'You have a reporter down here touching on a hot subject. It's going to cause some trouble.' " According to Esposito, after Ferris filed the story, he told her legal issues had come up and the Times felt Ferris lacked the environmental chops to write the story. Ferris declined to comment.

After talking to Esposito, other area residents began wondering if the lawyer who got involved was Times assistant general counsel George Freeman, who lives in Pelham. Freeman referred a call from the Voice to Times spokesperson Toby Usnik.

Via e-mail, Usnik said editors killed the story after reading the first draft, but not due to influence from Freeman. There were various reasons: Pelham Manor officials wrote a letter pointing out that Ferris's sources "had long-standing biases against the village," the officials' views were barely reflected in the story, and upon reviewing the piece, some editors and science reporter Andrew C. Revkin felt the "science did not hold up." Usnik said Freeman's "only involvement was, when asked by a town official about what they feared to be a biased story, to suggest that the official communicate directly with the editor involved."

Pelham Manor mayor Stephen Rooney confirms that Freeman is a friend, and that when asked for advice, Freeman suggested that Rooney contact Ferris's editor directly.

Esposito posts information about Shore Park at her website, wheatny.org. According to her documentation, until 1976, the site was operated as a pistol range and a dumping ground for ash from the town incinerator. (Lead and ash are known sources of toxins.) In 1976, the site was razed with an eye to turning it into a park, but Esposito claims the village did not perform the kinds of soil and groundwater testing that are typically done prior to renovating landfills. According to a letter Esposito received from the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the village used the park for the disposal of solid waste from 1976 to 1997.

In 2000, the village began renovating Shore Park for recreational use. That same year, Esposito's husband, Anthony Esposito, who dug trenches for the renovation, developed septic bursitis in his elbow and had to be hospitalized. After a specialist asked about exposure to toxins, Esposito and her husband began investigating the history of the park. The village government later fired her husband on disciplinary charges, which he is contesting. Some other workers now claim a "right to know" about toxin exposure, and the activists believe that the only way to determine whether toxins are present is to have soil samples taken by a lab recognized by the DEC or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mayor Rooney, who is also a corporate lawyer, told the Voice there is no safety hazard at Shore Park and no need to perform the soil tests. Experts have advised Pelham officials that the park is being run in full compliance with the law.

The state attorney general's office confirms that it is now reviewing a complaint about Shore Park.


cc@villagevoice.com

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