Can We Talk?

John Richard Neuhaus asked in a rhetorical aside last night on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer if a national conversation is possible on the issue of the rights of individuals and the responsibilities of the civic community to protect those rights. He was part of a panel dissecting the Terri Schiavo story.

A national conversation is occurring about these complicated matters of personal rights, legal protections, moral obligations, ethical considerations and the role of government. It’s a healthy conversation.

I’ve read several printed comments on the web and find the level of thought in the printed media to be, for the most part, insightful and notably balanced. That’s encouraging.

The television coverage, on the other hand, reveals conflict and extreme opinions that don’t leave me hopeful that the conversation can be conducted in a civil, constructive way.

Perhaps it’s the nature of the medium. Visual media need action. They are better at depicting conflict than unraveling subtlety. Thus, the conversation on television often degenerates into polemics.

In the television stories I’ve seen spokespersons for the various groups with agendas in this debate have made statements for impact. This doesn’t necessarily add to our understanding or move the conversation forward constructively.

Perhaps its the nature of the respective media that creates these results. Print results in more reflective, analytical processing of information. Visual media engage us in emotional identification and reaction.

Understanding this, and how different people use the media, may be a necessary survival skill if the debate about end-of-life decisions is to be conducted constructively. That means, to me, that I must take a step back and assess both the messenger and how the messenger is using the medium in order to evaluate the message adequately.

It’s very important to do this today in order to guard against manipulation and exploitation. There are those who have mastered the use of media and seek to manipulate and exploit us to achieve their own ends.

This is not a diatribe against the media. But I do think we who are witnessing this event through the media need to approach media coverage with a critical eye and, perhaps, even with a skeptical frame of mind.

As I write this, I am of the opinion that the national conversation that will be most constructive will occur in the reflective media, which are primarily print-based, and not in the visual media. Television is looking for the cryptic and sensational. This story requires more. It requires dissecting complex rights and responsibilities, moral positions and ethical behavior. Television isn’t good at this.

That said, I thought the News Hour provided us with a well-rounded discussion by people who were informed in end of life matters and who, while certainly opinionated, were civil. It presented a fuller range of opinion than I’ve seen on other programs.

I hope we can conduct this conversation in a manner that leads to constructive policies, if such are needed, and provides all of us with better information to prepare us for important decisions about our own lives and those of our loved ones.

I hope we rise above polemics and simplistic slogans and get to a conversation that does inform and enlighten.

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