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Political observers declared that President George W. Bush won a great victory early in October when he strong-armed Congress into relinquishing its constitutionally guaranteed war-making powers to him, the commander-in-chief. But by that time Bush had already won a far more important political battle by keeping Iraq and Saddam Hussein on the front pages to the virtual exclusion of his many domestic failures as president.

Satirists like Jon Stewart and Garry Trudeau have had a grand old time poking their poison barbs into the hypocrisy of Bush and those around him, who falsely purported to suddenly decry a clear and present danger from Iraq's long-time dictator. Saddam, of course, has been "evil" for many years, and any honest observer will admit that Iraq was a non sequitur in the discussion surrounding the war on terror.

Bush created the distraction for one reason: to help him win back the House and Senate by playing on voters' fears and diverting their attention from the plummeting economy. Such a victory, Bush's puppeteers figured, would give Bush control of all three branches of government; the US would become a de facto one-party state, and Bush, who has a winner-take-all mentality, would consider such a victory a mandate to do whatever he wants anywhere in the world.

The real question is, why did the mainstream media let Bush and his handlers get away with this? Underlying that query is a more worrisome question: Has the press abandoned its crucial historical role of watchdog? Or is an independent press another victim of Sept. 11?

The answer seems clear. The mainstream American media have rolled over for this administration with a mewling obeisance that makes perfumed British lapdog Tony Blair look like a junkyard Doberman.

The media's decision-makers could have done it differently, although they like to say that events force them to make the choices they do. During the election season, you often heard a talking head say, "the Democrats have been unable to focus the debate on the economy," in the same way you heard the California media say, "Gray Davis and Bill Simon can't keep the focus off the mudslinging."

That's all a reeking load of horse pucky. Gubernatorial candidates Simon and Davis both issued position paper after position paper delineating their many differences. Editors chose to not pass that information along to their readers. Similarly, stories move every day about the economy. Editors choose to bury them. I can't stress it enough: Editors -- every day at every newspaper and at every TV and radio station -- are making choices about what you get to read or watch. In this election cycle, they chose war over the economy, just the way Bush wanted it.

Here, thanks to their choices, are some things Americans didn't hear much about this fall:

Their incredible disappearing 401Ks, which shriveled so dramatically that they are now 101Ks.

The fact that their parents -- and, soon enough, them -- can't afford prescription drugs.

Corporate scandals. This one, a thorough airing of which would seriously damage Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others in their administration, would, Bush planned, disappear altogether if the GOP could only get its hands on Congress' investigative powers.

Editors put some of this stuff in the paper, sometimes, just so they could say they've covered it. But they buried it on page A17, or maybe in an op-ed piece on Sunday. Meanwhile, day after day, on page one, it was Iraq.

They didn't even get that right, by the way, focusing only on what press secretary Ari Fleischer told them to focus on while ignoring the many complexities, conundrums and consequences of attacking Iraq. Did you know, for example, that our saber rattling toward Saddam is annoying our client state, Turkey? That's because Kurds in Iraq are now talking about forming a Kurdish state. That's bad news for Turkey, which has oppressed its Kurdish minority as brutally as Saddam (if you're wondering, Turkey is not "evil" for mistreating Kurds because it allows us to base our missiles there).

Complicated, isn't it? Americans had no chance of learning about this stuff in the Daily Fishwrap or at an Ari Fleischer press conference. Why does the press shill for the president? There are four principal reasons in play today.

First, the government sets the agenda for press coverage, from the national level to the local school board. There's nothing new about this, and it makes sense because government represents all of us and presumably what it does affects all of us. It would be irresponsible, even lunatic to not cover the story when the president threatens to plunge the Middle East into war and put our sons and daughters in harm's way. Even so, a truly attentive press would not swallow, with a lip-licking smile on its face, everything the administration feeds it. It would question government assertions because there is so much at stake. As journalist Kristina Borjesson writes in Into the Buzzsaw, "on sensitive stories you can't trust official sources any more than you could trust President Clinton when he said he didn't 'have sex with that woman'."

Second, pack journalism still rules among the national press corps. If the New York Times and Washington Post say it's the war, stupid, the sheep will follow. You don't get to be Washington bureau chief or editor-in-chief by thinking outside the box.

Third, the press has grown afraid to carry out its watchdog role, which has historically played such a huge part in keeping America free. We all recall Dan Rather and others wrestling publicly with their consciences last fall, declaring that they were Americans first and newsmen second, as though there were some dichotomy between the two. The truth that eluded them is this: Journalists are never more patriotic than when they are keeping a skeptical eye on the government for the citizens.

Last, and it pains me to say this, but it's true: Far too many of the men and women who make news decisions are appallingly shallow in their knowledge of the world at large. They make the wrong news judgments because they simply lack the education and gravitas to know what the right call might be. They have no larger geopolitical context. That brings them back to the assumption that if Bush and his people say it's important, then it must be important. After all, he's the president; he'd never mislead us.

What to do? Nothing is going to improve quickly. In the long run, the press, as an entity and as individual reporters and editors, could learn to do things better. I'm not optimistic, because they don't think there's a problem with the way they cover this or any administration.

I think they're dead wrong and I think the runaway success of a book like Michael Moore's Stupid White Men shows that there are readers who want their media to deliver something other than the party line.

My prescription is aimed at individual citizens. Since you can't get the straight dope from the mainstream media, educate yourselves. Want to know what the rest of the world thinks of the war on terrorism or the looming Iraq attack? (And don't say you don't care what the rest of the world thinks. Trust me on this: it matters, if you care about your children and their children.) Read World Press Review or get on one of the many, many web sites that can give you a more educated, sophisticated and balanced point of view. Of course, those who are reading this already are doing some home schooling by reading The Progressive Populist. There are also many other alternative voices at the local magazine store.

I don't mean to give up on the mainstream media. Progressives can't, because that is where most people get their information. Progressives have to continue to apply pressure. They can write letters to the editor, submit op-eds. Many newspapers invite members of the public to sit in and watch how news decisions are made. Take them up on it. You could even call radio talk shows (I know, I know, that's taking a trip to Demagogue Central, but sometimes you just have to suck it up and try).

One can only hope that the mainstream media will one day genuinely represent mainstream thought. If they continue to parrot the powers that be, we will not survive as a nation. Jefferson, Franklin and others all have spoken eloquently on this. I'll give the last word to Borjesson: "Journalists are this nation's last line of defense for keeping us all from becoming a nation of expendable cockroaches. This ... is our real raison d'etre."

Cuddy, a consultant and free-lance writer, is a former editorial pages director for the Alameda Newspaper Group and editorial board member for the Contra Costa, Calif., Newspapers.