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Give Us a Year of Magical Reporting

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Watching Vanessa Redgrave channel Joan Didion last night in The Year of Magical Thinking, many of Didion's writings rushed through my mind, but the one that stayed was my favorite piece of her reporting, the essay Insider Baseball.

Earlier in the afternoon, students in my government reporting course at NYU got a hefty dose of my disappointment with news accounts of the unprecedented amount of money flowing to the unprecedented number of candidates in an election that - with no incumbent president or vice president on the ticket - is unprecedented in my 50 years as a citizen of this country.

Unfortunately, the type of reporting that told us about the phenomenon is old hat. Didion nailed it nearly 20 years ago.

Writing about the 1988 Dukakis-Bush campaign for the New York Review of Books, she exposed the staged and canned narratives campaign consultants have learned to spoon-feed reporters assigned to cover presidential politics for the mainstream media. She also questioned who these reporters consider their primary audience.

I'm not arguing that the amount of money raised and number of donors who gave it aren't an important part of the public record. What disappointed me was the second wave of reporting - the investigative wave I need to tell me how this phenomenon is going to affect me and which candidate if elected is more likely to represent my interests.

So, here almost two years before I cast my vote for the next president, I am asking something serious of reporters who cover these campaigns and the editors and producers who decide what stories are covered and how.

Give us a year of magical reporting.

Don't depend on the campaign professionals to give us a year of magical campaigning. They won't. Use the First Amendment the way it was intended. Take the initiative and be independent.

Sadly, the big story this week seemed to be the relative amount of money raised by Hillary Clinton and by Barack Obama, and whether, under a Byzantine federal formula, it is earmarked for the primaries or the general election.

One reporter I respect said it bodes poorly for Clinton because it calls into question how she spent more than $30 million raised for her 2006 senate re-election campaign and how different the story would be now if she had that money back to shift to her presidential race. Another reporter I respect talked about her organization's ability to use computers to trace Obama's contributors by zip code to see where in the country they live.

Gross dollars earmarked for primary vs. general election campaigns. Campaign expense reports from a 2-year-old statewide campaign. Zip codes of contributors. Are they kidding?

Clinton launched her campaign with the tag line, "Let the conversation begin." I couldn't agree more.

That is what a presidential election in the world's greatest democracy should be. We should come together as citizens the way our founding fathers set in the First Amendment and decide who we are as a nation. What are our values? How are we going to proceed?

Too often these days, the First Amendment is seen protecting a quaint set of rights that may or may not apply to us all. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's much more than some random list of disjointed privileges cobbled together in grammatically awkward syntax.

The First Amendment is whole. It is organic. It was the way the framers of the constitution crafted our greatest institution: the public sphere.

In today's language it might read like this: "We are free to get together (freedom to assemble) to discuss what we want to do (freedom of speech). We also are free to tell our leaders what we decide (petition for redress of grievances), write our ideas down for those who couldn't make it (freedom of the press), and nobody can be excluded from the conversation because of their religion (the establishment clauses)."

Most Americans want to be part of that conversation. When the national media does its job the way the framers intended, we are.

We want the national media to tell us who these candidates are talking to when they raise millions of dollars. We want to know who is talking back to them by writing thousand dollar checks and by organizing groups of others to write them, too.

Many of us don't have the money to be in that conversation. But we are all citizens, and the national press can let us know who is having that conversation - and what they are talking about when we aren't there.

The Dukakis-Bush campaign, like this one, began with great excitement and enthusiasm, but as Didion notes, it ended with widespread disillusionment among both voters and many journalists who covered it. (Voter turnout was the lowest in about 50 years.)

There is time to keep that history from repeating itself. The way to do it is to make everyone privy to all of the conversation. And that is going to take a year - or two - of magical reporting.