In the pre-TV days of World War II, the making and exploitation of heroes was a relatively simple matter. Audie Murphy, a poor farm boy from Texas, became a much-decorated hero for acts of valor that included single-handedly storming a German gun position. His picture appeared on the cover of Life magazine. After the war, he became a movie actor and played in 44 films in 25 years.
The case of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, America's favorite fighter in the Iraq war, is different. After being made into a star by the military and a cooperative media, the seriously wounded soldier is now having to fight real hard to avoid being turned into a weapon of mass distraction.
First we had the big publicity buildup by the military, which conveniently managed to have a video camera on hand for the nighttime rescue of the wounded soldier. Then, a sensationalized account of her capture and rescue that later had to be toned down. She had been injured in an accident, not by enemy fire. Before being captured, she had not emptied her rifle at the approaching troops because her gun had jammed. In the hospital, which Iraqi troops had evacuated shortly before her rescue, she was well treated by nurses and a doctor who tried to return her to American lines.
The New York Times asked whether "the US military manipulated the episode for propaganda purposes."
But, never mind. Jessica Lynch is hero enough for a nation desperately short of heroes. But heroism has become a fungible commodity. And while she was recovering from her wounds, her family by her side at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in suburban Washington, she became the target of a massive "get" campaign. "Get" is media jargon for landing the first interview.
This is the age of the media conglomerate and the multi-media deal. So, CBS, a unit of the vast Viacom empire, reached far in its quest of a big "get." It offered the recovering soldier a deal it hoped she couldn't refuse.
In exchange for an exclusive first interview, CBS offered a made-for-television movie, a televised MTV concert in her home town of Palestine, W. Va., and a book contract with Simon & Schuster, a Viacom property.
Other networks represented themselves as shocked - shocked by what looked like a form of checkbook journalism. An NBC spokesman said, haughtily, "We don't bundle." (That's more media jargon.)
The networks have all sent their "pitches" (also media jargon) to Lynch at the hospital and are waiting to hear back. These are anxious times at Viacom, Disney, GE, and Fox, all panting for the big hero "get."
And the hero herself?
They say at the hospital that her recovery is progressing.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.