This tale of two atrocities one that happened and one that didn't suggests why so many Americans "know" so much about the war in Iraq that isn't so.
Twenty beheaded bodies were discovered on the banks of the Tigris river near the city of Salman Pak, Sinan Salaheddin of the Associated Press reported June 28.
"The bodies, all men aged 20 to 40, had their hands and legs bound, and some of the heads were found next to the bodies, " the AP said. "The victims' identities were unknown, but they were found in an area where Shiite travelers have been kidnapped and killed in the past."
The AP attributed the story to two anonymous Iraqi police officers, one in Baghdad and one in Kut. The story also was reported by the British news service Reuters.
"It now appears that the story was completely false and fabricated by unknown sources," said a spokesman for Multi-National Force Iraq June 30. Both the AP and Reuters have issued retractions.
Michael Yon, a former Green Beret, is a freelance journalist embedded with U.S. troops in the offensive against al Qaida in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. On June 29 he accompanied U.S. and Iraqi troops on a sweep through the village of al Hamira.
The soldiers cleared the village after a brief firefight, but found no civilians in it. They did pass two donkeys which had been shot in the neck.
A "terrible stench" drew the soldiers to a nearby palm grove. In the grove were mass graves containing the remains of 14 men, women and children. The children had been beheaded.
Mr. Yon was the only journalist to report the massacre, though al Hamira is just 3.5 miles away from Forward Operating Base Warhorse, where "mainstream" journalists covering Arrowhead Ripper are located.
"For those publications who actually had people embedded in Baqubah when the story first broke and still failed to cover it, their malaise is inexplicable," Mr. Yon said. "I do not know why all failed to report the murders and booby trapped village."
It certainly isn't because the media are squeamish about reporting atrocities, as the eagerness to report the beheadings that didn't happen as Salman Pak indicates.
The phony atrocity supports the false notion that the violence in Iraq is chiefly sectarian. The real atrocity reveals al Qaida's savagery. Could this be why the phony atrocity was reported and the real one was not?
Marine reservist Matt Sanchez is a freelance journalist embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq. He thinks most mainstream media reporting from Iraq is "completely wrong."
It is wrong, Mr. Sanchez said in an article in National Review Online Thursday, because many news organizations rely on dubious sources, and rarely suffer consequences for mistakes, however egregious.
"Unlike any other player on the board, the press has no oversight, no mandate, few penalties, and even fewer consequences," Mr. Sanchez said. "Because there are not enough reporters on the ground, too many bureaus have outsourced both their reporting and standards to third party stringers whose spectacular videos of explosions and inflated body counts have shown up on both jihadist recruiting sites and American television screens, simultaneously."
The mere existence of spectacular pictures of explosions should be a warning sign, Mr. Sanchez said.
"On my trip north, our convoy was hit by an IED," he recalled. "An explosion is a split-second flash, something you could miss if you blink. Explosions are tricky to catch on film. You'd have to point at the right place at the right moment, and even then you'd need luck. Unless, of course, you know when, where and how the bomb is about to go off."
It isn't quite true that the press has no watchdogs. The false Salman Pak massacre was exposed because Web logger Bob Owens (Confederate Yankee) noticed the police officers the AP said were its sources were nowhere near the scene, and asked the U.S. military to check.
In a letter Thursday to AP's director of media relations, Mr. Owens noted that Mr. Yon had offered his photographs and account of the massacre at al Hamira free of charge, but the AP turned him down.
"I would like for the Associated Press to explain why it is willing to run thinly and falsely sourced insurgent propaganda as unquestioned fact without any independent verification, but refuses to publish a freely offered account by a noted combat correspondent that some consider his generation's Ernie Pyle," Mr. Owens said.
He's not alone.