Let’s see: The financial system is still in grave peril, despite approval of an unprecedented $700 billion bailout. Unemployment is rising, the economy is slowing, and the question isn’t whether we’re in for a recession but how long and how deep the recession will be. Meanwhile, U.S. troops are still fighting in two places — Iraq and Afghanistan — where, as a rule, foreign occupations end badly. The terrorists who struck us on 9/11 have been allowed to regroup within the borders of nuclear-armed Pakistan and are busy plotting new attacks. Rarely have there been bigger or more urgent issues to talk about in a presidential campaign.

But John McCain wants us to talk about Barack Obama’s acquaintances. He and Sarah Palin are going to try their best to make us talk about anything but the big issues facing our country, because most Americans think Obama’s solutions are better than McCain’s.

Knowing that, are we in the media going to aid and abet the McCain campaign’s obvious ploy?

We journalists like to think we’re too smart to be used by one side or the other in a political campaign. In a sense, we’re followers of Adam Smith: We believe in an omniscient free marketplace of news in which myriad individual decisions by reporters, editors, photographers, columnists, commentators and media barons — decisions about what to cover and how to cover it — somehow miraculously end up maximizing the truth. We claim not to be ideological, but this is our ideology.

At the same time, though, we think of ourselves as working in the public interest. We repeatedly remind everyone that our right to do our jobs however we see fit is enshrined in the First Amendment. We love to quote Thomas Jefferson about how he would rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers.

Rarely do we grapple seriously with the way our Adam Smith tendencies and our Thomas Jefferson tendencies sometimes work at cross-purposes.

This campaign is one of those times. We all understand that the strategy of the McCain campaign is one of distraction — his campaign aides have acknowledged that they want to shift the focus from the economy to character, which means personal attacks against Obama. Lacking any fresh mud to sling, the McCain people are trying to exhume guilt-by-association charges that were exhaustively examined months ago during the primaries. Vowing not to be Swift-boated, the Obama campaign is firing back in kind.

Our Adam Smith instinct is to cover what the candidates say. But in the Jeffersonian sense, we know that it’s not in the public interest to spend the rest of the campaign talking about fringe characters who once crossed paths with Obama, McCain, Palin or Joe Biden instead of debating the economy, the war on terror, health care, or any of the other big issues that will define the next presidency.

We also know that no matter how skeptical we are when we write about bogus allegations, writing about them at all gives them wider circulation. So when Palin questions Obama’s love of country because he knows somebody who did something unpatriotic when Obama was 8, our free-market ethos makes us rush to cover her every ridiculous word. We also find ways to convey that this is pure mudslinging and nothing but a cynical campaign tactic, but that doesn’t matter to the McCain campaign. What matters is that we’re writing and talking about this extraneous stuff — and not about the issues that polls say voters really care about.

If we in the media really believe what we say about serving the public interest, we have a duty to avoid being turned into instruments of mass distraction. Of course we should cover what the candidates say, putting their words in context and pointing out when the candidates are exaggerating or lying. But we should also think hard about how much prominence we give to smears and counter-smears.

And we should be relentless in demanding that the candidates talk about the economy and the wars and America’s place in the world. If they won’t sit down to be interviewed, we can shout our questions at them. If they filibuster, we can cut them off. If they give evasive answers, we can ask follow-up questions.

The McCain campaign has made clear that it wants to change the subject. We can, and should, change it back.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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