One recent evening on the Fox News Channel, right-wing media-basher Brent Bozell and pudgy patriot Sean Hannity were doing what they do best: exposing America's enemies among the treacherous liberal press.
The target on this particular occasion was the New Republic, or TNR, which had published a series of Baghdad Diarist essays by a pseudonymous American soldier alleging all manner of loathsome behavior by his comrades-in-arms - dogs gleefully run over by tanks, a dead Iraqi child's skull donned as an impromptu helmet.
"Propaganda," Hannity called it. Agreed Bozell: "This is the kind of stuff the Soviet Union was proud of. You put it out there. Whether it's true or not, it's irrelevant."
As it turned out, the tales spun by "Scott Thomas" - later revealed to be a 23-year-old Army private named Scott Beauchamp, the husband of a TNR staffer - were, indeed, problematic. Beauchamp, apparently for dramatic effect, had moved his story about a disfigured female soldier mocked in the mess hall from Kuwait to Baghdad, thus calling into question his reliability on other matters as well.
So score one for Bozell, Hannity, the Weekly Standard (the conservative magazine that first started pulling at Beauchamp's loose threads), and the numerous conservative bloggers who flogged the New Republic. Never mind that TNR is more centrist than liberal, and had at one time supported the war as fervently as, say, Ahmed Chalabi, or Dick Cheney. The magazine that gave the world Stephen Glass had screwed up again, even if the full extent of this particular screw-up remains a matter of dispute.
Yet even as the New Republic was being pilloried, a considerably more ambitious expose of American wrongdoing in Iraq was receiving virtually no media attention. Following a year-long investigation, the Nation recently published a nearly 15,000-word report, informed by on-the-record interviews with 50 veterans, that unearthed some truly horrifying acts - innocent Iraqis callously gunned down at checkpoints, rousted in middle-of-the-night raids on the basis of faulty intelligence, imprisoned on false pretenses.
Since Beauchamp's tales of dog-squashing and skull desecration aroused so much outrage from conservatives, it's worth noting that the Nation's account, by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, includes similar stories. For instance, a platoon leader is described as shooting the jaw off a dog for no particular reason; the hapless creature yelps and spurts blood while the family whose home was being raided looks on in horror
On another occasion, an American soldier poses alongside a dead Iraqi man with the top of his head blown off, and pretends to be eating his brains with an Army spoon. "Take a picture of me and this motherfucker," the soldier reportedly said. Apparently someone did: the Nation claims to have photographic evidence of the incident, alleged to have been witnessed by members of the victim's family.
The Nation is every bit as far to the left as Brent Bozell and Sean Hannity imagine the New Republic to be, and its circulation - about 180,000 - is approximately triple that of its rival. Yet the Washington-based TNR is part of mainstream political discourse in a way that the editors of The Nation, marooned in New York and isolated by their impolite ideological views, can only imagine.
Even as we await a final verdict on the extent of Scott Beauchamp's offenses against the truth (TNR is standing by him, more or less), the Nation's report serves as a powerful indictment of the US effort in Iraq, and of the depravity that is an inevitable result of long exposure to war and fear.
"Damn, they really fucked you up, didn't they?" laughed the spoon-wielding soldier as he surveyed the extent of the dead man's injuries.
Indeed they did. But long after the Iraqi was laid to an uneasy rest, his tormenter will be dealing with the reality of his own fucking-up. That's not propaganda. That's the entirely predictable consequence of a war that never should have been fought.
Longtime media critic Dan Kennedy teaches journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and blogs at Media Nation.
© 2007 The Guardian/UK