In the media, all great public questions are debated on two distinct planes. On one plane are the major East Coast publications and TV networks, run by a small class of ambitious sophisticates who live mostly in New York and Washington. Here every national argument inevitably devolves into a game in which the players try to maximize their own visibility and perceived influence over events. It's all about impact.

Far below this plane, barely visible through the clouds, is a vast tundra-like expanse where national issues are also discussed, in the columns of second- and third-tier newspapers. Life is different on this plane. News travels slowly, about a day behind the elite cycle. Momentous national questions, such as the current Iraq debate, are viewed not as games, but as momentous national questions. Yet the simple folk of this plane have no influence whatsoever on how those questions are decided. Why they even bother having opinions is something of a mystery to those above.

In recent weeks, the contrast between the two planes has been especially striking. On the question of Saddam Hussein, the ruling class has been gaming itself crazy. The three leading national newspapers—The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times—staged The Tournament of Gray Eminences. Each paper had an elder Republican statesman weigh in on Iraq, by writing an op-ed column. The Journal offered Brent Scowcroft, The Post had Henry Kissinger, and The Times fielded James Baker. The object was to decode what each gray eminence actually said, which was quite a challenge, given the way such gentlemen write.

The Journal accused The Times of misinterpreting Kissinger—for suggesting he was dovish when he really was hawkish—and a real melee broke out. "The question of The New York Times is now in play," one key player, Bill Kristol, told The Post, which ran a story on the brawl. Soon the matter of Saddam's threat to civilization had been virtually forgotten, as the far more urgent issue of the Times's threat to civilization took center stage.

Meanwhile, out in all the places where the Delta Shuttle never goes, the Iraq debate has a different character. On the editorial pages of local newspapers, the war question is discussed earnestly, in plain language so unlike the code spoken by insiders it might as well be a different tongue. Here the court politics that obsesses the big media outlets, the jaded intrigues and constant jostling for position, are utterly absent.

"Get the Facts Before Attacking Iraq," says the headline over a recent editorial in The Indianapolis Star. The opening sentence couldn't have been more direct: "Our position: The nation needs an open, honest debate before launching an invasion against Iraq." Now this is not exactly a blinding insight, and some elite outlets have said the same thing. But the piece went on to pose two interesting sets of questions, one for those who lean toward attacking Iraq and one for those who lean away. Example of the latter: "Can the world live safely with a Saddam Hussein who's armed with biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons?" The entire piece had an evenhandedness that's rare in top media circles, where savvy players know to trim their arguments in one ideological direction or the other—otherwise you lack a certain edge.

In Indianapolis, edge is apparently not a hot commodity. The piece closed with a denunciation of gamesmanship: "It's important for all sides to set aside ideological and political differences as the debate continues. Focus on facts, not wishful thinking. Be prepared to make a hard decision, but don't be boxed in by past assumptions. Don't be distracted by personalities or political loyalties. The president and Congress must follow such rules in one of the most important debates of this decade or any other."

Cruising local newspaper editorials this week, I found dozens of pieces with a similar stance and tone. Some of these papers seem to support war, others oppose it, but the most common bias is for simple caution. When the vice president said on Monday that Saddam has to go, the Portland Press Herald in Maine used the occasion to argue for further consultation: "As Vice President Cheney said Monday, pre-emptive action against Saddam is a prerequisite for peace and stability in the Middle East.... If it is imperative to strike now, Bush should tell Congress why and then ask for explicit authority to take action, regardless of whether the law compels him to do so."

When the president signaled last week that he was a "patient man" and was going to take his time before deciding how to proceed on Iraq, the editorial pages of large papers either yawned or jeered. But smaller papers cheered. "This is a prudent course," said The Oregonian, in an editorial that typified small-paper reaction, "if only because everyone is talking about this 'regime change' business in the passive voice—as if it were going to occur, somehow, on its own. But the most likely way for Saddam to leave office would be at the business end of an M1A1 main battle tank with an American son or daughter at the other end of the barrel. Which makes this an especially good time for caution."

Caution? It's a word that the sharpest, big-time media people are always careful to avoid. It's a bit dull, you see, and it doesn't cut decisively left or right, dove or hawk. Kind of like the public at large. And who cares about them?