After a decade filled with round-the-clock media sensations, we finally ended up with one that's truly portentous. The post-election battle for the White House has stood in sharp contrast to countless ersatz stories that gained enormous coverage during the 1990s. The warfare between Al Gore and George W. Bush is certainly historic -- but this partisan version of a demolition derby may not be as profound as we think.

The sizzling media fixations of yesteryear now seem notably trivial. In retrospect, how would you rank the conflict between skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan? All the obsessive and protracted O.J.-mania? The cable-TV-driven frenzy over little Elian?

After such breathless stories, the network anchors have been proud to report on the truly weighty spectacle of Gore and Bush operatives going all-out. But ironically, the "better" this story got -- the more that Democrats and Republicans clashed, litigated and spun at a frenetic pace -- the farther it moved from the essence of political leverage in America.

Nearly 3,000 years ago, the Greek poet Homer was serving as a darn good media critic when he lamented: "We mortals hear only the news, and know nothing at all."

A few centuries after Homer, another poet -- an English guy named Francis Quarles -- offered some advice that still resonates with wisdom. "Let the greatest part of the news thou hearest be the least part of what thou believest, lest the greater part of what thou believest be the least part of what is true."

Fast forward to 1920, when the great writer and hell-raiser Upton Sinclair observed, "Journalism in America is the business and practice of presenting the news of the day in the interest of economic privilege."

In the waning weeks of 2000, journalists and many of the rest of us have been transfixed with the slugfest in Florida. Each twist and turn of the story took us further away from the strongest muscle behind American politics -- big money.

If we're attentive to breaking news, we're apt to know a lot of isolated facts. But truth is another matter.

Sure, there's been plenty of dramatic entertainment. For instance, on the night of Nov. 21, when the Florida Supreme Court announced its decision about manual recounts, the partisan theater was superb. Gore read from another solemn and carefully calibrated script. Minutes later, Bush strategist James Baker stepped in front of cameras to drawl invective through clenched teeth.

But in many respects, the Gore-Bush contest during the final weeks of November has been a colossal sideshow. Yes, it's important. But is it profoundly important?

On the surface, in news coverage of historic events, what we see is what we get. But what about what we don't see?

"In the American republic," journalist Walter Karp wrote in 1989, "the fact of oligarchy is the most dreaded knowledge of all, and our news keeps that knowledge from us." His words, first appearing in Harper's magazine, are even more acutely relevant today. "By their subjugation of the press, the political powers in America have conferred on themselves the greatest of political blessings -- Gyges' ring of invisibility."

If a wealthy few have inordinate power to dominate government decision-making, and most of their manipulations occur behind Oz-like curtains, then what are we to make of the feverish media spectacle now unfolding in Florida?

Initially, Democrats claimed that their opponents were trying to "steal the election." Especially after the state Supreme Court's Nov. 21 ruling, Republicans have made similar assertions. As usual, the most vitriolic charges flooded into the news media on condition of anonymity -- a timeworn way of making ugly accusations without standing behind them.

A convincing case could be made -- but you won't hear it on network television -- that the 2000 presidential election was stolen a long time ago by both of the two major parties as they ran campaigns fueled with hundreds of millions of dollars from wealthy individuals and large corporations. No matter who the next president turns out to be, those benefiting from the fact of oligarchy have already won. Most Americans have good reasons to count themselves among the losers.

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