The media have turned politics into pure contest: reporters interpret every aspect of presidential campaigns by asking who's ahead and by what strategies they got there. This is in distinct contrast to what voters ask whenever they get a chance to quiz a candidate in a town meeting or other uncontrolled venue. The press wants to know how the candidate is going to get ahead or stay ahead. The public wants to know how the candidate is going to solve their problems—disappearing jobs, excessive medical costs, or drugs in the streets.

In his cleverly argued Atlantic Monthly cover story in April of this year, U.S. News editor James Fallows concluded that this disparity of interest is one of the major reasons Americans hate the media.

But the current picture is not so simple: It is not merely a case of the press turning the campaign into a contest (for politics has, at least since Machiavelli, been that) while the public and the candidates are interested in solving serious social challenges. No. If August's made-for-TV conventions taught us anything, it was that politics has been Oprahcized; it has been tuned to our national love of courage in the face of tragedy. The parade of plucky overcomers and valiant disease-of-the-week victims was the stuff of daytime talk television and made-for-TV movies. The message was compassion and courage. But the experience was vicarious. No demand was made that we tighten our belts, volunteer in service of country or humanity, or even stiffen our upper lips. It was highly refined and processed emotion—Cheez Whiz for the psyche politic.

TO MARKET, TO MARKET What this media-culture campaign says about the American political process is really a comment on the American marketplace. In the ...

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