When the shameful debacle called Election 2004 is finally over, hopefully after the ballots are counted and not after some long nasty court battle, the pundits and other second-guessers will pontificate endlessly over what went wrong.

Some will blame partisanship which has replaced rational debate. Others will blame a political system long overdue for an overhaul. Others will say the nastiness that overwhelmed America is part of an overall cultural deterioration.

All will be right – up to a point – but those who write about politics will avoid examining some of the root causes of the breakdown of our political system unless they look in a mirror.

Journalists – the very ones who are supposed to avoid the mire of partisan politics and rise above the fray – contributed as much to the mess as anyone.

 As journalists, we should be non-partisan observers of the political process. We should be looking for truth behind the spin, cutting through the propaganda that dominates political rhetoric and providing a clearer picture of the issues that should frame an important election of a President.

But we can’t do that if our reporting consists primarily of reporting each side’s spin without getting to the real stories behind the standard political lies.

Consider, for instance, the failure of mainstream media to question President George W. Bush’s headlong rush into war with Iraq. Caught up in the patriotic fervor whipped up by the White House spin machine, reporters failed to ask hard questions when the President of the United States said we had proof of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or that a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Quida had been established.  Only weeks later, when the situation in Iraq had gone to hell and too many American soldiers had died did the media start realizing that had sat on their asses and not done their job.

The just-concluded Presidential debates provide another shameful example of failure of the media. After each debate, the television and cable networks faithfully allowed each side to twist and distort the facts – each claiming their candidate won. The newspapers reported the same, tired rhetoric.

Reporting such status quo is public relations hype, not journalism. News, real news, would be if a Democrat claimed Bush won or a Republican bemoaned the fact that their candidate screwed up big time. Reporting political hype is not reporting – it’s a cut and paste job for the hired guns of the public relations industry.

Some of the best reporters in Washington never set foot inside the White House, never attend a Presidential press briefing and never shout questions at Bush from behind a rope line. They work the phones, badger sources and look for the facts that both sides want to bury under a mountain of distortions, half-truths and lies.

President Bush and Senator Kerry told, on average, a half-dozen lies in each of the three debates but few reported the inaccuracies. Both campaigns routinely put out television, radio and newspaper ads with inaccurate claims and distortions of facts about their opponents while the media accepted the revenue from these ads and then reported the same false claims as news.

The media, through its own laziness and sloppiness, has become nothing more than public relations tools for the campaigns. Add to that the growth of partisan “news” outlets like Fox’s pretend news network, and it is little wonder the average American can’t separate the many fictions from the few facts of an election campaign.

“The only security in us all is a free press,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to Lafayette in 1823. “The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”

True, but a press that becomes a partisan political tool is no longer free. Neither is the country with a co-opted media.