Memo to media: Let the candidates speak

As we enter the final daze of the marathon presidential race of 2008, there is one last campaign reform that we in the news media still have time to push.

It is about us, not them.

With just a handful of days remaining until the votes are cast and counted, we need to remember that ultimate truth about the closing messages of the campaign: It is their messages, not ours that the voters need to hear.

It is the final themes, assertions and promises of the campaign tag teams of John McCain-Sarah Palin and Barack Obama-Joe Biden that the people deserve to hear most of all.

What the voters do not need to hear is the final diversions and gotchas of our poll-obsessed television interviewers and anchors, nor the unadulterated (which seems to mean non-adult) opinions pundits of the airwaves, ether and newsprint.

What the interviews should not be about — and what the voters do not need to hear — is candidates being push-pulled, again and again, by those inane and interminable made-for-TV questions about the latest public opinion polls. No more questions, please, about what Candidate X or Y or O or McC thinks of the numbers.

No more questions please about: Doesn’t this mean you don’t have a chance of winning? Doesn’t this mean you are sure to win? Are you reconciled to defeat? Are you overconfident and taking the voters for granted? Nobody cares.

We will know whether the polls were right or wrong sometime during the night of, or morning after, Election Day. (Unless of course we are condemned for our civic sins to be visited by some touch screen version of the "Return of the Dangling Chads.” In that case we will have to wait for the junta that is our Supreme Court to once again give us, supra-legally, our next comandante-in-chief.)

Here is what the last round of interviews should be about: When the television interviewers sit down for those final rounds of interviews, the questions need to be about what the candidates want to tell the voters — about their themes, issues, promises and, you-betcha, the attacks the candidates are talking about.

The role of the news media must be — always but especially in these final days — to assure that the candidates are telling truths in their closing messages, themes, assertions and attacks. It is not a passive role the media must play, but a most active one. It is our job to make sure that a candidate cannot get away with shifting into the Big Lie in these last days in the hopes that the lie won’t be unraveled and revealed until after Election Day, when all of that is irrelevant.

That of course places a great challenge and burden upon my colleagues in the news media. It means we must be very well prepared and informed when we interview the politicians, especially in these last hours of the campaign. It means we must do our homework so we can do our real work.

All of that will be much harder than merely spouting poll numbers and adding a gotcha and conveying the impression that we have just committed journalism on the public interest.

The candidates know this is not true. The people know this is not true. It is time we admit that we know, and have always known, that we have been taking the easy way out in the last days of the campaigns.

The best public service the news media can perform here at the end of Campaign 2008 is to assure that the focus of the news is on the agendas of the candidates — and not the agendas of those who get paid to cover them.



(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)