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For a while, it looked as if U.S. politics had entered a new era in the way presidential campaigns were conducted and covered.


For people who grieved over the decay of electioneering into bloopers and bites, it was an encouraging moment. Time and again, a strong field of presidential aspirants stood on stage and spoke at length, to the public and to each other, about what they hoped to do and how they proposed to lead the country.


True, it got tedious and predictable, and nobody watched every one of the innumerable debates. But in the end we ended up with two sturdy candidates and a tail-wind that seemed to be driving the campaign toward civility and substance, without loss of passion.


That was then. Since the nominating conventions last month, we’ve entered a different period, of casual smears and innuendos that have only the remotest bearing on the problems the electorate faces. And the news media, instead of acting as proxies for the public, have become the enablers of a discourse that seems destined to grow evermore destructive.


The nomination of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as Republican nominee Sen. John McCain’s running mate started the mudslide. How many acres of newsprint were squandered on her teenage daughter’s pregnancy? I don’t know how that became a front-burner campaign issue, whether it was because her opponents believed it would discredit Palin’s claim to being a good parent, or because her fans saw it as a down-home affirmation of her forgiving, pro-life embrace.


Regardless, the upshot was that the privacy of a young girl - and of her boyfriend - was savaged, and that two kids who are too young to give anything like informed consent became political pawns, with the eager complicity of the news media.


That’s deplorable, but my larger concern is over the ability of the media to play an independent role in the electoral process. Nowhere is it written that news organizations must cover whatever the campaigns decide they want to fuss about. So what if the McCain people figured they could get mileage out of attacking Sen. Barack Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” remark - an allegation that McCain was tarting up failed Bush administration policies - as a snotty reference to Palin? Is that attack really worth covering and covering and covering, as if it were a new McCain policy stand of profound significance?


In a perverse way, even the recent media effort to fact-check campaign utterances has troubling consequences. Sure, candidates ought to be called on lies. There is value to pointing out that Obama never favored instructing kindergarteners how to have sex, despite a ridiculous Republican attack ad. If the list of books then-Mayor Palin supposedly wanted banned that’s circulating around the Internet is bogus, we should know that.


But at the same time, every expenditure of reporting time spent assessing campaign claims puts the news media once again into a reactive mode, ratifying an agenda of informational priorities that was engineered not to illuminate the electorate, but to bring some momentary partisan benefit.


Meanwhile, what goes uncovered are real issues that are well worth journalistic sleuthing:


  • Take McCain’s truly audacious promise that keeping the ruling party in power will foment change. He also pledges bipartisanship with words reminiscent of George W. Bush in 2000. So just which elements of the Bush years does he repudiate? What would a McCain administration look like?
  • Or Obama’s talk about restoring America’s luster on the world stage. Beyond pieties about multilateralism and respectfulness, I see almost nothing about the character of Obama-era diplomacy. How would he modify U.S. strategic doctrine and deal with bloated military spending? Who would be his secretary of state or national security adviser?
  • Or where either candidate stands on the most far-reaching legacy of the Bush-Cheney administration: The radical concentration of executive power.

Voters deserve to hear about these things, even though they’ll never be applause lines and the campaigns see no benefit to addressing them. Now my fear is that the campaigning is about to go from frivolous to toxic, as the real attacks begin. Soon enough, we’ll see the ads portraying Obama as a cross between Malcolm X and Bugsy Siegel.


When that happens, some in the media will be ready with pails and shovels to sort through the claims. But most will return to their habitual role of finding those with the loudest voices and handing out megaphones.


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ABOUT THE WRITER
Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.

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