The next 49 days will be critical...for John McCain, Barack Obama, and for America, to be sure.
But it's also going to be do-or-die for an integral part of what once made America special -- a free and independent news media that can make a difference in a functioning democracy.
Because there is a war for the soul of this nation going right now, and we the media are involved -- not as some would like to think, as some kind of passive UN peacekeeping force -- but as a party that is in the acrid smoke of combat, under attack in a manner that's little different from the way that parts of Georgia were overrun by the Russian Army a few weeks ago. And frankly, American newsrooms face a situation that could be described in similar terms to that former Soviet Republic -- nearly defeated, and demoralized, with few if any allies that are willing to come to our aid. And despite the dire situation, most journalists are cruising along toward Nov. 4 as if it's business as usual, and that is what I personally find most alarming.
That we're in a war -- and we're barely fighting back.
Let's be clear about what is happening in 2008. There are always going to be distortions and even outright lies fling from all sides in an American presidential campaign -- and there is always a need as journalists to wake up every day with an equally jaundiced eye toward each and every candidate -- toward what they say and who they claim to be.
That means we have an obligation to treat the candidates equally at the front end, with close scrutiny. But we lose once we insist on a phony balance on the back end, when we feel compelled to write a 50-50 narrative in which the conclusion is always the same, that "everybody distorts" -- because that gives one side an easy path to gaming the system.
Both nominees in 2008 have seen journalism in its greatly weakened state -- economically. because of our numbing inability to adjust to the new media world of the 21st Century and the resulting job losses, and morally, because of our deep failings in the way that we cover both politics and life-and-death issues like the war in Iraq. In the case of Barack Obama, his strategy has depended heavily on bypassing and neglecting the traditional media, using everything from Facebook to text messaging to reach his voters and donors directly; the troubling side of that is that he has gone long stretches not answering many reporters' questions.
Benign neglect? Maybe. But then the Republican side -- with John McCain and his new Lee-Atwater-on-steroids team of hyper-aggressive advisors -- are the ones who turned this into a shooting war, on what what we now call, somewhat wistfully, "the reality-based world," and on the American media. This isn't completely brand new -- I actually remember, barely, when Spiro Agnew uttered the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism" in 1970 -- but McCain's campaign team, led by brass-knuckles advisor Steve Schmidt, has taken the hostilities to a new level beginning with and since the GOP convention in St. Paul.
Speakers there worked hard to cast the media as co-enemies-in-chief along with Obama and the Democrats, culminating in Sarah Palin's caustic "little news flash for all those reporters and commentators" that she wouldn't bend to the Washington elite. What that really meant was that Palin would do something unprecedented -- which was refuse to answer questions, quite possibly all the way through Election Day -- unless the journalist was someone they picked in advance. On top of that, Schmidt and the McCain campaign even insisted that Palin be treated only with "respect and deference" -- the implication being that anything different would be open to charges of sexism. On the first day of the convention, the McCain campaign announced in a press release the rather jarring news that Palin's 17-year-old daughter was five months pregnant -- and when the media unsurprisingly went to town, they slammed the press for going after her family while working to lump in serious questions of governmental misconduct -- such as "Troopergate," for example -- as other matters that should be as off-limits as a teenage pregnancy.
The anti-media sniping at St. Paul was greeted with a lot of aw-shucks, this-is-what-they-always-do talk from news executive, but the truth is it was just the softening-up for the shock-and-awe bombardment of the last 10 days -- an all out assault on what we journalists hold most dear, the truth. You've certainly seen it a number of times with Palin, with her refusal to back down from her false statement that she said "thanks but no thanks to Congress" on the Bridge to Nowhere, or her bogus claims on opposing earmarks.
But more importantly you've seen it from the very top levels of the McCain campaign -- in an ad that falsely accused Obama for supporting "comprehensive sex ed" for kindergartners, in another Internet ad that said -- all visual evidence to the contrary -- that Obama had described Palin as a pig, and in another ad that cited claims from the independent group Factcheck.org, and then lied about what the fact checking had found.
It's clear that the McCain campaign is doing this because they believe that American media is in such a depleted state -- diminished in size and diminished in public esteem -- that they can get away with half-truths and a few complete untruths (even Karl Rove, of all people, has now said so). They're so brazen they even talk about their plan on the record.
OK, so what do we do about it, when politicians rig the system and all but declare that facts don't matter?
Remember, they declared war on us for the same reason that anyone declares war: Because they perceive us as weak. And why wouldn't they? Newspapers have gone from cash cows to an ink-stained version of Lehman Brothers in a couple of short years; there are fewer reporters on the campaign trail and fewer reporters at the conventions (it didn't look that way from afar, but my paper, the Daily News, has gone from four to three to two to one reporter since 1996). There are fewer reporters in Washington and, regarding a major issue in the 2008 race, fewer reporters giving a true picture of what's going on Iraq.
At the same time, consider the run-up to Iraq as the war games where the current tactics were proved so effective -- the time when we showed it was more important to let one side, the White House, set the narrative, and tried feebly to balance it with a response way down in the story, rather than trying to investigate what was the truth about Iraq's ties to al-Qaeda or weapons of mass destruction. They know that we can be crushed with our own antiquated rules -- established in a different era, when the Internet didn't exist and when newspapers had a different, monopoly role, and when politics...well, OK, I know it wasn't beanbag, but it wasn't quite the bloodsport it is today, I believe.
So how do we fight this war? Let's change the rules! Here are some suggestions:
1) From now through Nov. 4, let's not make fact-checking a secondary task, but our No. 1 duty -- the thing that belongs on Page One, not on A17 (and in the upper corner of our Web sites, as soon as a new ad or dubious claim hits the airwaves.) In an era when campaigns have enormous control over the message and the news cycle, fact-checking in the one value-added service that only a newsroom can bring, a real contribution to the democratic process. We've seen in 2008 that we're not keeping the candidates' honest, but WE can go over their heads to the public.
2) Now is the time to lose our pathological fear of the word "lie." It's not only a perfectly good word in the English language, but it's the best word when a politician says "red" and the undisputed truth is "green." We talk and talk and talk about our right to a free press in America -- well this is what a free press is all about, when we are free to decide when someone is empirically dishonest and to tell our community all about it.
3) This one isn't my idea -- it was Marc Ambinder's, I believe -- but it's a great suggestion so I'm going to pass it along. Increasingly, campaigns are developing "commercials" that aren't even broadcast but appear only on their Web site, with the main purpose that we then write stories about them. Let's not. If they want people to see their video press releases, there's plenty of ways to do that without involving us.
4) Ditto for the candidates' families. They don't want us to cover their kids -- so we shouldn't. That means no more stories about Bristol Palin's pregnancy, but also no more stories about Palin's son fighting in Iraq, or puff pieces about her raising a special needs child (like this one) or cute photo spreads of the Obama kids, etc. A rule is a rule.
5) In our diminished state, journalists need to think of ourselves as less as competitors and start thinking of ways that we collaborate more often, with our common goal of amplifying the truth and reaching as many voters as possible in the next seven weeks. When one news organization has a scoop that peels away the layers of deception and spin, 2008 is the time to stop the old games of ignoring it or cutting down, and let's all push it forward. (It's too late for this time, but in 2012 I'd love to see something like the Arizona Project for presidential elections, when newsrooms pool their resources to get the full measure of the candidates.) The ability to divide and conquer is one reason that candidates get away with their lies.
6) Think outside the box -- way outside the box. Make truth-telling our crusade, but don't make it deathly dull -- call ourselves "The Truth Party" and post our own Internet "campaign ads" disproving THEIR campaign ads on our Web sites -- and for God sakes make them funny. Remember what Janice Joplin/Kris Kristofferson said, that freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. If there was ever a time to be free, to experiment, to be in a war and actually fight back, that day is today!
But let's be honest -- we may be just too weak and disorganized to pull this off. They are fighting a different fight, and using more deadly weapons -- but that's because we don't take our ammunition, our freedom of the press, out of our holster. There's 49 days -- we're in a war, and truth can win this thing.
But we have to actually fight.