A Citizens' Bill of Rights for Better News Media

Over the next 60-some days, Americans will likely choose two candidates to be the next President of the United States. It's an awesome thought -- especially considering the media's key role, and the superficial debates and shallow media coverage that are the norm. Who will blunder? Who will zing whom? Will Rudy be rude or take Mitt to the mat? And what will Jon Stewart say about it, if that darn writers strike in Hollywood ever ends? Forget health care or immigration or Iraq; the real campaign will be fought on the battlefield of personalities and sound bites.

Yes, the problem is bigger than the media; the Media R Us. If we were a bit more interested in issues, elections, and government than in TiVo-ing the next episode of Dirty Sexy Money, we would probably get better journalism, and with better journalism, better democracy.

We can't remake American journalism in the next two months. But we can get started. So here's a Media Bill of Rights -- not for journalists, but for their audience:

1. No dumb questions to the candidates on our behalf about diamonds vs. pearls, or boxer shorts vs. briefs. Even if we'd like to know.

2. No questions on our behalf about money, sex, or religion. I know, dears, those are tough ones to leave alone. But do the right thing: honor they audience. Remember how the American people got tired of the Monica Lewinsky story while you media folks were still flogging it to death? If that happens again, ask not for whom the bell of mistrust tolls. It tolls for thee.

3. Get the relevant facts and get them right -- but a dollop of context too, please. Don't be afraid to explain, to be serious, to shun meaningless fluff and mayhem. Are you listening, daytime producers for CNN?

4. Ask tough but relevant questions on our behalf that are not intended simply to provoke a gaffe. It's newsmakers' job to embarrass themselves -- not yours.

5. If a question asked on our behalf elicits an evasive answer, please ask it again, or ask a follow-up. Otherwise you are an accessory to a hoodwinking.

6. If public figures treat you with disrespect (remember President Reagan cupping his ear over the din of a waiting helicopter?) please remind them that you represent us, the people, at least as much as they do -- you are our surrogates in seeking accountable government. Contempt for the press is contempt for us all.

7. Ask about things that really matter to us -- including in places like Iran and Somalia. Cover the horse race, sure, but don't be like Lady Godiva, who put everything she had on a horse. It matters who's ahead and who's trailing, but it shouldn't drive out coverage of issues, and it shouldn't drive events.

8. Finally, never debase the First Amendment by using it as a shield against criticism. Criticism of the media doesn't abridge freedom of the press -- it is freedom of the press. Get over it. You're not gods. Just guardians of democracy.