`Not the Ten Suggestions ...'

Ted Koppel, ABC's popular anchor of ``Nightline,'' addressed the graduates of Duke University, in Durham, N.C., in May, criticizing television's ambiguity, lack of complexity, and intellectual vacuum. In this excerpt he concluded the speech with an uncommon endorsement of the Ten Commandments.

IN the place of truth, we have discovered facts. For moral absolutes, we have substituted moral ambiguity. We now communicate with everyone and say absolutely nothing. We have reconstructed the Tower of Babel, and it is a television antenna: a thousand voices producing a daily parody of democracy, in which everyone's opinion is afforded equal weight, regardless of substance or merit. Indeed it can even be argued that opinions of real weight tend to sink with barely a trace in television's ocean of banalities.

Our society finds truth too strong a medicine to digest undiluted. In its purest form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder. It is a howling reproach. What Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions. They are commandments. Are, not were. The sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is that they codify in a handful of words acceptable human behavior, not just for then or now, but for all time.

Language evolves. Power shifts from one nation to another. Messages are transmitted with the speed of light. Man erases one frontier after another. And yet we and our behavior and the Commandments which govern that behavior remain the same. The tension between those Commandments and our baser instincts provide the grist for journalism's daily mill. What a huge, gaping void there would be in our informational flow and in our entertainment without the routine violation of the Sixth Commandment, ``Thou shalt not murder.'' The Gary Hart campaign floundered ... on violations of the Seventh Commandment, ``Thou shalt not commit adultery.''

Relevant? Of course the Commandments are relevant. Simply because we use different terms and tools, the Eighth Commandment is still relevant to the insider trading scandal. The Commandments don't get bogged down in methodology. Simple, to the point: ``Thou shalt not steal.'' Watch the Iran-contra hearings and keep the Ninth Commandment in mind, ``Thou shalt not bear false witness.'' And the 10th Commandment, which seems to have been crafted for the '80s and the Me Generation, the Commandment against covetous desires, against longing for anything we cannot get in an honest or legal fashion.

When you think about it, it's curious, isn't it? We've changed in almost all things - where we live, how we eat, communicate, travel - and in yet our moral and immoral behavior, we are fundamentally unchanged. Maimonides and Jesus summed it up in almost identical words. ``Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.'' ``Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'' So much for our obligations toward our fellow man. That's what the last five Commandments are about.

The first five are more complex in that they deal with figures of moral authority. The Fifth Commandment requires us to honor our father and mother. Religious scholars through the years have concluded that it was inscribed on the first tablet among the laws of piety toward God because as far as children are concerned, parents stand in the place of God. What a strange conclusion - us, in the place of God. We, who set such flawed examples for you.

And yet, in our efforts to love you, to provide for you and in our efforts to forgive you when you make mistakes, we do our feeble best to personify that perfect image of love and forgiveness and providence which some of us find in God.

Last of a series. Other articles ran on Aug. 3, 4, 5.

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