Every four years, when summer begins, the national media curtain rises on an overheated stage of presidential politics. Like drama critics clutching their programs, thousands of journalists are keenly alert to the feverish orchestration for the Republican and Democratic conventions later in the season. The political show must go on -- no matter how phony it may be.

This time around, reporters and commentators seem to be straining extra hard to fan the flames of interest in the race for the White House. After all, George W. Bush and Al Gore are among the most boring political leaders in the country. And that's saying something.

George Orwell seems to have anticipated the genre of politics that prevails in the United States today, a half-century after his death: "When one watches some tired hack on the platform, mechanically repeating the familiar often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy."

Nearly halfway into 2000, few Americans are excited about Bush or Gore -- and not coincidentally, most understand that both major parties are beholden to economic elites. "Voters know instinctively now that presidents and politicians may come and go, but the men who collect the checks and rack up the favors amass the real power," Time magazine reports in its June 5 issue. "And so far, none of the proposed reforms from either party would change that."

Yet the vast bulk of day-to-day campaign reportage takes for granted, and leaves unexplored, the mega-dollar context of 21st century politics. Mixed messages abound in print and on the air: It's a shame that certain candidates rely on millions from wealthy donors. But according to the sheep-like news judgment of media professionals, those are the only candidates who merit extensive coverage. Of course, such assessments are self-fulfilling.

The Center for Public Integrity observes that "the American people have come to expect and accept the worst from their politicians." The center adds: "Public interest and news media interest in politics generally have declined; so has the inclination of citizens to get involved in political causes. Increasingly, the disengagement is making government the exclusive province of vested economic interests and the politicians they support. Politicians do not take responsibility for this reality, nor are they asked to."

News outlets should be in the forefront of asking -- demanding -- that politicians "take responsibility for this reality." But the platitudes and hand-wringing in corporate media rarely get very far. Even the occasional fine piece of journalism, detailing exactly who gives large checks to presidential hopefuls and what the signers get in return, scarcely makes a dent in the moolah-fueled engines of political commerce and media discourse.

The vague ritual of decrying big money in politics has become fashionable. In its book "The Buying of the President 2000," the Center for Public Integrity goes farther by documenting key sources of funds that have flowed into the coffers of presidential aspirants anointed by mainstream media as serious contenders. Aptly describing the "mock sincerity and epidemic equivocation by our elected officials," the nonpartisan group notes that huge amounts of money are "sloshing through the system, sometimes secretly, sometimes illegally, sometimes directly influencing life-and-death public policy decisions."

At times, pundits scold the public for being too cynical or apathetic about the campaigns underway. Editorial writers and columnists encourage us to pay closer attention, engage in the political process and -- by all means -- vote. But well before Election Day, the finely meshed screens of big money and media coverage have eliminated almost all the candidates as realistic possibilities to win the White House. Financial power dominates.

"History shows that a nation interested primarily in material things invariably is on a downward path," Eleanor Roosevelt said in 1927. Forty years later, as the war on poverty gave way to the war on Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

These days, journalists routinely evaluate presidential campaigns as grand performances that must meet high aesthetic standards. The mass-media calculus gives great weight to the production values of the partisan road shows. But in the real world, other values are the ones that count.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.