Posted: Jun 09, 2006 12:05 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Cold blood is a "hot" topic. For pontificating politicians and the potentates of the press it invariably trumps good news. Even the violent demise of terror-mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi wasn't enough to push the bad news off the front page for long. At 7:30 a.m. EST on June 8, the masters of American media paused their drumbeat of negativity from the Global War on Terror just long enough to announce that U.S. Special Operations Forces had killed Zarqawi. The barons of bombast allowed President George W. Bush a few minutes of air-time to commend our troops and note that they had administered "a severe blow to Al Qaeda." Then it was business as usual, bashing the administration, trashing our troops, and making sure that the words "Haditha" and "atrocity" are firmly branded in the minds of everyone with access to American media.

Here's a "self-test" to prove how well this "branding" works. Clip or print this article. Put it in a pocket and a week from now, whip it out and ask a "representative sample" of your family, friends and associates two questions: "What happened at Bakuba?" And then, "What happened at Haditha?" Tabulate the results. Prediction: Eight of ten will be able to tell you something about "Marines accused of killing civilians" in Haditha. Fewer than three in ten will know anything about Bakuba -- and only a few will even know that it's in Iraq.

Bakuba, in case you have already forgotten -- or never heard -- is where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the most brutal terrorists in history, was tracked down and killed by Joint Task Force 145 -- a special air-sea-ground unit of the U.S. Special Operations Command. That was good news -- and, therefore, transitory. Haditha, on the other hand, is here to stay.

What did or didn't happen in Haditha, Iraq last November will remain a full-throttle topic for every "talk-jock" with a microphone for months to come. TV, radio, and newspaper pundits, armchair admirals, bar-room brigadiers and pontificating politicians are all openly opining on the fates of those involved. Most want you to remember the "horror" of "American crimes" in Haditha. Others purport to be "outraged" at the "mistreatment" of the U.S. personnel allegedly involved. Some politicians, like Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., claim to "know" that Americans committed murder "in cold blood." None of them know what they are talking about because not one of them has seen the final reports of ongoing investigations.

The dissonant reporting and commentary about the two places -- Bakuba and Haditha -- reflects far more than a difference in what's "known" before you hear, see or read the "news" from each. From bloggers to broadcasters, few of today's "reporters," editors or news directors require two or more sources to corroborate a story. Journalists blame intense competition for ratings and circulation in a "24-hour news cycle" for "minor factual errors" and an "if it bleeds it leads" mentality. Politicians claim that they need to be "out front" on issues important to their constituents.

These are lame excuses for what's really going on -- and the Bakuba-Haditha stories are perfect examples of what's been happening in this war since the liberation of Baghdad. The critics of the Bush administration and those who seek political advantage in denigrating America's military have decided: Haditha -- like Abu Gharib -- is going to be beaten like a rented mule. Bakuba -- like the capture of Saddam outside of Tikrit -- will be "buried" like every other "good news" story coming from this war. And the Washington politicians are helping to make sure that happens.

Last week, the Chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees announced their intentions to hold hearings to "get to the bottom" of what happened in Haditha. That will keep the Islamic press entertained for months.

And the day before the Zarqawi-Bakuba story broke, Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee held a press conference at the Pentagon to report that he was "gravely concerned about the serious allegations concerning actions of some Marines at Haditha and Hamdania." He reminded those who bothered to listen that investigations were still underway and that the Marine Corps is "committed to ensuring they are thorough, that no avenue of investigation is left undone, and that due process and the rights of the affected individuals are protected. If it turns out that an individual violated rules or regulations, he will be held accountable, regardless of grade or position."

The first question to Hagee from my "colleagues" in the Fourth Estate indicated where this is heading: "I'm wondering, given the gravity of what's come to light thus far in the two cases that you cited, why shouldn't you resign as an acknowledgment of failure of leadership?"

It's easy to throw barbs like that in a Pentagon press room. But the troops operating in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan rarely see a U.S. journalist in the field. In seven trips to Iraq, embedded for months with U.S. Army and Marine units from Mosul to bloody Al Anbar Province, I've met fewer than a half dozen reporters from U.S. news organizations who spent more than 48-hours away from the air-conditioned hotels in Baghdad's "Green Zone." Despite hundreds of miles of video footage documenting young Americans in gunfights with Zarqawi's terrorists, "IED incidents" and engagements with suicidal "martyrs," I've not seen a single violation of the code of conduct or rules of land warfare.

But that's not "news." That may not be an atrocity, but it is certainly a travesty.