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Media has not focused on election issues

Commentary: US mainstream news has failed to educate American voters on crucial topics.
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A campaign worker of Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum works irons the flag before a rally in Mars, Pennsylvania on April 3, 2012. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

LONDON — The Economist, a British news magazine known for its sharp and intelligent coverage of world events, calls the French presidential campaign “the West’s most frivolous election.” I beg to differ. Even in a season of elections that includes Russia’s recent farce, the United States wins that distinction.

Like the French, American politicians are offering the electorate platitudes rather than the tough decisions that must be made if their country is to maintain its credit rating as well as the lifestyle of its middle class. Both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney deny the decline of America. As Edward Luce points out in an essay in Britain’s Financial Times, they are right in real terms but dead wrong in relation to the rest of the world. A decade ago, the US represented almost a third of the global economy. Today, it’s less than a quarter.

The Republican Party has drifted so far to the right that Congress can no longer do its work. Compromise, the heart of the American constitutional system of checks and balances, appears impossible. “Moderate” has become a dirty word. America seems to have lost what the 19th century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville called its ability “to repair her faults.”

Viewed from abroad, the United States looks as if it has lost its compass. Candidates argue about issues that excite the fringe but are irrelevant to the masses. Why does Catholic Rick Santorum bother to condemn birth control when the vast majority of Catholic women use it? Republicans and Democrats engage in futile debates about when and how the US should pull out of Afghanistan. Opinion polls show that the public has already concluded America has lost the war.

Many of the real issues — problems that directly affect the lives of Americans and the health of their society — are rarely aired except in snappy sound bites. I am not just talking about medical insurance, or “Obamacare” as its opponents call it. Of course, that program is less than perfect. It’s an awkward compromise. But Republican activists would oppose it even if it were the perfect solution to the inefficiency and inequality of America’s health care system.

The American mainstream news providers — especially television news — have not done enough to clarify and focus the issues in the American elections. The plethora of television debates helped thin out the field of candidates but did little to educate the voters.

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Perhaps the national media (but obviously not Fox News) fear criticism for appearing to be too partisan. I suspect they simply find it more exciting to treat the election as a horse race.

There have been, however, some notable instances of good journalism that cut through the hot air of this nasty presidential campaign and make points that American politicians prefer to overlook.

One such example is an analysis by American journalist Robert D. Kaplan, who looks at the debate over whether the United States should intervene in the uprising in Syria, where 8,000 opponents of the government have been killed in the past year. Kaplan notes that Washington policy wonks and the American media pay far more attention to that civil war on the other side of the world than they do to the horrific violence right next door in Mexico.

More than 47,000 people have died in the Mexican drug wars since 2006. Surely, the criminal violence in America’s deeply troubled neighbor poses a greater long-term threat to the US than the unrest in a distant country that has less than a fifth of the population of Mexico.

In another excellent piece of journalism, Time magazine’s Fareed Zakaria spotlights a problem closely related to Mexico. His essay entitled “Incarceration Nation” points out that America’s war on drugs “has succeeded only in putting millions of Americans in jail.”

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America has a quarter of the world’s prison population — far more than most other developed countries. That gap is a recent phenomenon. America’s prison population has been tripled since 1980 by the war on drugs. Zakaria contends, as do many experts, that this costly war has failed. In the past 20 years, “the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.”

Unlike Kaplan’s essay, which appeared in Stratfor, an Internet intelligence service that is too expensive to attract a mass audience, the Time Magazine essay touched off a fascinating online debate. Contributors highlighted the facts and fallacies of a program that has cost more than a trillion dollars in the past four decades

That’s the kind of debate Americans need to hear before they go to the polls in November. Ordinary Americans, and even journalists, are capable of having intelligent discussions on important issues. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if politicians were, too.

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