- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

On Media

John Walker Lindh inspires purple prose wherever he goes. Since his arrival on the media landscape 55 days ago, the minutiae of his life, musical tastes and hairstyle have been chronicled by a press so transfixed they seem to overlook that Lindh is suspected of heinous crimes.
Pathos reigns.
His snappy new title, "American Taliban," sounds like a brand name and perhaps it is. Four different "American Taliban" Web sites have already been registered for Internet use.
Meanwhile, accounts from his court appearance yesterday dwelled upon his appearance and mannerisms, chronicling the makeover from soiled captive to model prisoner.
Lindh was "cleancut" "shorn" and "babyfaced," among other things. National Public Radio referred to him as "an intelligent and curious young man" and "an inquisitive soul," while CBS billed Lindh as "very calm, very polite … not at all the grubby renegade." Reuters pronounced him "America's home-grown holy warrior."
The media were also eager to set a dramatic stage.
"The parents of John Walker Lindh came to offer him their steadfast love and a spirited defense," the Associated Press observed, while MSNBC called the events "a high-voltage legal showdown." By day's end, the Fox News Channel had boiled it down to bold graphics reminiscent of Wild West novels: "Walker Meets Justice" and "Walker Wronged?"
The many lives of Lindh, however, have been a soap opera from day one. Indeed, he provided compelling visuals for broadcast since his first video vignettes were aired almost ceaselessly around the globe in December. His past has been plumbed for ironic tidbits; his weight and medical condition charted with clinical precision.
"Whatever else can be said of U.S. treatment of Taliban prisoners, it cannot be said that they're not being fed," said CBS' Bryant Gumbel yesterday, upon seeing the new, sturdier version of the suspected traitor.
To add to the mix, Lindh's attorney, James Brosnahan, announced that his client now wanted to be called "John Lindh," rather than John Walker, John Walker Lindh, Suleyman al-Lindh, Suleyman al-Faris or Abdul Hamid all previous monikers.
All of this makes great theater, rather than hard news.
"There is a natural tendency to romanticize traitors Benedict Arnold remains a compelling character," said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs yesterday. "Combine that inclination with a 24-hour news cycle and we'll soon see hour-long profiles of this confused young man. This could impede justice because it's far easier to punish a concept rather than a person. The more the media personalizes its coverage of Lindh, the tougher it will be for a jury to render a harsh verdict, even if it is appropriate."
But there is a ready audience out there.
"If you shaved him and gave him a haircut and taught him some dance moves, he would become the most popular guy on campus, with all the girls going for him," said one particiapant in one recent CNN "Talk Back Live" show.
"His parents need to start a propaganda campaign the way Chandra Levy's parents did," offered a visitor to an online news site where rants about the American legal system were common.
Elsewhere, conspiracy-happy observers weighed in with the idea that Lindh was really an actor, a paid CIA plant or a fall guy.
Contact Jennifer Harper at [email protected] or 202/636-3085.

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