An open letter to the "Gang of 500"
Dear "Gang of 500":
Did you pursue a career in journalism so you could help shed much-needed light on important topics, so you could help educate and inform your fellow citizens, so you could seek the truth and hold those in power accountable to the people they are supposed to serve?
We know of no poll that shows that respondents consider Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco residence of primary importance in this November's elections. We know of none that suggests that Tennessee voters care more about whether Harold Ford Jr. went to a "Playboy party" than they care about keeping America safe. We see no indication that the public is calling out for more "analysis" of the candidates' appearance, or even that their primary concern is how the midterm elections will affect the 2008 presidential prospects of various members of Congress.
No, the American people know what is important. Iraq is important. Capturing or killing Osama bin Laden is important. Keeping America safe, securing our ports, and preventing future attacks are important. The growing gap between rich and poor is important; the fact that millions of Americans lack health care is important.
The American people know these things are important -- and they tell you that every time you ask. You pick the poll, any poll you want: We guarantee you the poll shows that people think these things are important.
You won't find much evidence that the pressing questions on their minds have anything to do with Hillary's hair, or whether Pelosi's "San Francisco looks" turn them off, or whether the latest political ad "goes too far."
So please -- please -- use these last 10 days well. Use them to educate your readers and viewers and listeners about the things that really matter. Use the next 10 days to help people understand what the candidates want to do about Iraq and whether their solutions have worked in the past. About how we've failed to capture Osama bin Laden and what we're doing to change that. About what is happening in Afghanistan, about port security, about the budget deficit, about wage stagnation, about runaway energy costs, and about health care.
Don't just use this time to play an RNC ad -- or a DNC ad, or any ad -- over and over and over and over again. Voters will see these ads; the parties and candidates are paying for voters to see them. That's the whole point of an ad. Voters don't need you to air these ads nonstop, for free. The parties want you to do that. You're doing their bidding. You're telling voters about campaign tactics rather than issues. But campaign tactics don't keep us safe, don't keep our troops from dying needlessly in Iraq, don't put food on the table, and don't help people get health care.
We know: The vicious attacks demand attention. But not at the expense of issues that really matter. That isn't mud they're slinging -- it's quicksand they're leading you and the voters into. It swallows up and suffocates everything that gets caught in it, transforming elections that should be about Iraq, about bin Laden, about the economy, about the minimum wage, and about health care into a race to the bottom dominated by substance-free bickering. The campaigns responsible want you -- and the voters -- to get swallowed up in the quicksand. You know a radio host's attack on an actor shouldn't be the dominant story of the days before Americans choose their representatives. Your audience doesn't consider it the most important issue. So don't treat it that way.
For 10 days -- just 10 days, that's all -- use your platform to focus attention on matters of substance, not on the horse race. Don't tell us how an issue is "playing" -- tell us where the candidates stand, what they plan to do, and how they'll do it. We'll tell you how it "plays" on November 7, when we vote.
Once November 7 comes and goes, by all means, knock yourselves out telling us what our votes meant, what the future holds, what you think about the cut of Barack Obama's jib or John McCain's "steely resolve." There's plenty of time for you to do that. Plenty.
But for 10 days -- just 10 short days -- think about what really matters.
Think about why you first put pen to paper, what your motivation was the first time you asked a politician a question, what you think the highest aim of journalism should be.
Think about what makes your profession one of the highest callings a democracy has to offer, what makes journalism so essential to our existence as a nation that its freedoms are enshrined in our Constitution.
Think about the people who have fought and died for those freedoms. Think of your colleagues who have had their phones tapped, who have risked being killed in order to report from war zones, who ended up on "Enemies Lists," who have gone to jail because of their pursuit of the truth.
Did they do all that so you could bring us a story about the Democratic Party's "Two Left Feet," or about allegations that Hillary Clinton has had cosmetic surgery?
Or did they do it so you could tell us the truth about why we went to war, how that war is progressing, and what our leaders plan to do to get us out of it?
Ten days of substance. That's all we ask.
Too many recent elections have been decided based on earth tones and sighs, on windsurfing and swift-boating, on claims that are false or trivial, or both. Too many votes have been cast by voters who are misinformed about some of the most important issues of our -- or any other -- time.
The media don't bear sole responsibility for those things, of course. Our political leaders (on all sides) and those who help elect them deserve their share of blame, to be sure. And the voters themselves bear ultimate responsibility for not being better informed.
But, yes, you in the media are responsible, too; of that, there can be no doubt.
And in the next 10 days, your own performance is the only thing you can change. You cannot change the fact that some politicians will lie; that others will have great ideas but be less tactically savvy than their opponents; or that voters would rather watch Fear Factor than the evening news.
But you can make sure that those voters who read your newspapers and watch your television shows -- who try in these last 10 days to make an informed decision -- get the information they need about things such as war and health care, rather than trivia and pointless prognostication.
You can do that in these last 10 days. And by doing so, you can force the candidates (and help the voters) to talk and think about substance, about issues, about the future of our nation. Your readers and viewers and listeners need you to do that. Your nation needs you to do that.
Isn't that why you wanted to be a journalist in the first place?