AIDING AND ABETTING A CYNICAL PLOY…. It’s rather amusing to listen to major media figures ponder the question of whether John McCain will be able to successfully change the subject away from the economy and towards controversial figures Barack Obama has met. It’s entertaining, of course, because the media figures treat this as something they have nothing to do with — as if the political discourse is some kind of independent animal, which news outlets are powerless to control.

The reality is, McCain wants the political world to obsess over the three-headed Ayers-Rezko-Wright monster, and it will be successful if the media decides the three-headed monster is suddenly newsworthy. There’s no great mystery here. In fact, the pundits’ speculation is silly — if they follow McCain’s orders, and talk about what he wants them to talk about, McCain’s plan will be a triumph; if not, it won’t.

Today, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson urges his media colleagues to resist the urge to act like sheep, asking, “[A]re we in the media going to aid and abet the McCain campaign’s obvious ploy?”

It shouldn’t even be necessary to ask. The reporters know that the McCain campaign is desperate to distract voters away from substantive issues that matter. Indeed, several journalists have already reported that the McCain campaign is desperate to distract voters away from substantive issues that matter. So, unless you’re Fox News, why would a legitimate news outlet play along when there’s nothing new to report?

If we in the media really believe what we say about serving the public interest, we have a duty to avoid being turned into instruments of mass distraction. Of course we should cover what the candidates say, putting their words in context and pointing out when the candidates are exaggerating or lying. But we should also think hard about how much prominence we give to smears and counter-smears.

And we should be relentless in demanding that the candidates talk about the economy and the wars and America’s place in the world. If they won’t sit down to be interviewed, we can shout our questions at them. If they filibuster, we can cut them off. If they give evasive answers, we can ask follow-up questions until we run out of breath.

The McCain campaign has made clear that it wants to change the subject. We can, and should, change it back.

Sounds like reasonable advice.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.