I got sideswiped last week by Ann Coulter.

It was just a glancing blow. I wasn't so much a target as collateral damage, a bystander struck by falling debris as the giant fire-breathing lizard rampaged through the city in search of bigger game. No serious damage done. If you are reading this, Ann: I'm OK. I'm not mad.

Here's a pertinent excerpt:

"Democrats yearn for America to be defeated on the battlefield and oppose any use of the military. . . . It has been the same naysaying from these people since before we even invaded Iraq. . . . Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, warned in the Aug. 30, 2002, Los Angeles Times of 60,000 to 100,000 dead American troops if we invaded Iraq - comparing an Iraq war to Vietnam and a Russian battle in Chechnya. He said Iraqis would fight 'tenaciously' and raised the prospect of Saddam using weapons of mass destruction against our troops, an attack on Israel, and 'possibly the United States.' "

The passage is so completely wrong that it is startling, and instructive: It offers insight into how the outrageous art of high-level punditry works.

Let's deal with the part of the quote that is correct. I am guilty of predicting that our enemies in Iraq would fight "tenaciously."

It will come as a surprise to my more stubborn critics, however, to see me labeled a "naysayer" on Iraq and an opponent of the use of the military. I was conspicuously in favor of invading Iraq, mistakenly assuming (along with most of the Western world) that Saddam Hussein possessed dangerous chemical and biological weapons, and was seeking nuclear weapons. I was wrong about that, but my record on the matter is, sadly, all too clear. Indeed, the very L.A. Times essay Coulter characterized as naysaying and opposed to the use of the military favored the invasion of Iraq.

Here is the Web address for the paper's electronic archives: http://pqasb.pqarchiver. com/latimes/advancedsearch.html. It will cost a few bucks to look it up, but if you do, you will see that I also made no prediction of U.S. deaths in Iraq, did not compare the then-potential battle there to Vietnam or Chechnya, and never mentioned "weapons of mass destruction."

I did write that urban war can turn very bloody, and, to emphasize the point, noted that there were reports of 100,000 people being killed in city battles in Chechnya - note that I did not say that 100,000 invading Russian troops were killed, only that the fighting was intense. In the essay, I said that the fighting in Iraq would likely be the costliest American military venture since Vietnam, which it has unquestionably turned out to be. I also said that Saddam might try to attack Israel (as he did with Scud missiles in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War), and even in the United States (I was thinking, post-9/11, of possible terrorist attacks). Thankfully, those things have not happened.

From this, Coulter gleaned my two supposed predictions of between 60,000 (about 58,000 Americans were killed fighting in Vietnam) and 100,000 (the carnage in Chechnya), and the use of "weapons of mass destruction" against Israel and the United States.

This is just a small and relatively inconsequential example of the methods employed by the pundits who offer what increasingly poses as journalism in this country.

Coulter herself is not taken seriously by serious people, so her attacks are a little bit like being pelted by cotton balls. She represents a form of journalism free of real reporting or even modest research, which is very popular today. "Facts" are not things to be carefully observed or unearthed, but tidbits gleaned by Google or Yahoo searches. Where the facts don't exactly fit the argument, they can be artfully massaged. This arsenal of virtual factlets is then employed against an imaginary wrongheaded opponent in an ongoing adolescent debate, ostensibly between "conservatives" and "liberals," where the goal is to score points for your side, preferably in words outrageous enough to be heard in the din of the Internet, to startle an increasingly jaded public.

There are so-called liberal pundits every bit as idiotic as Coulter. Their debate has little connection to the real world. Where their arguments do occasionally intersect, as in this case with me, they are apt to be wildly wrong.

It seems to me that real journalism is the opposite of this. We make our best contributions when revealing that something widely believed to be true is not. This requires, first, that you do not begin with a conclusion. You do not assume to know the truth about anything before you begin reporting. In my experience, the truth is usually surprising. Surprise is reality's most distinctive feature - the fact that Maasai tribesmen in Kenya like American country music, or that some tiny bacteria thrive in boiling water. Bad journalism, like bad fiction, is bad because it is entirely predictable.

(Note, for the record, I am not saying here that Coulter resembles an albino Maasai tribesman or that her opinions are like strains of heat-resistant E. coli. I admit Godzilla.)

Mark Twain once observed that a lie can circle the Earth before the truth gets its boots on. Coulter's claim that Mark Bowden warned of 60,000 to 100,000 U.S. deaths has been so widely reprinted and distributed that I could never effectively debunk it. It is out there in the ether, and there it shall remain. My note to her went unanswered, which tells you something. If journalism proceeds down this sloppy path, it is likely to turn up in my obituary.

Which is OK, I suppose. I deserve some punishment for advocating the invasion of Iraq, and contributing to the mess we are in today. This one is weird, but God works in mysterious ways.

Mark Bowden is a former staff writer at The Inquirer and is now national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. Contact him at mbowden@phillynews.com.