Let's Have More Than Just the Facts, Ma'am

AS the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) is completed, many negotiators are breathing sighs of relief: After seven years of coping with intransigent demands from many international interests, they're finally finished.

Some TV viewers are also relieved, but for a much more passive -

and perhaps selfish - reason: The agreement means the end of another of those issues that dominate the media's more thoughtful public forums without enlightening us in any basic or lasting way.

This past Tuesday, during ``The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour'' on PBS, four articulate guests argued at length about GATT. We heard informed and well-stated challenges to the United States performance in hammering out a deal. It made garment-industry workers sacrificial lambs, said opponents, on the altar of a broad-based resolution. It meant decisions affecting the well-being of Americans would be made - as Ralph Nader put it - ``by faceless bureaucrats.'' We also heard well-rehearsed and persuasively presented defenses of the deal by administration officials.

What we didn't hear, in the heat of the moment, was the kind of exhaustive logic and philosophical reasoning that the subject cried out for - especially on ``The Newshour,'' one of the few highly visible places you could expect to hear exchanges at this higher level. It was a lost opportunity for examining basic ideas on one of those few occasions when such an approach wouldn't sound absurdly out of place - when intelligent guests and hosts make an intellectually congenial home for ideas. But even on ``The Newshour,'' exchanges sometimes end up as essentially party-line confrontations.

Not just well-marshalled facts but fundamental concepts should be made to run the rhetorical gamut every once in a while, just to remind viewers where we stand in the blizzard of specifics that occur when hotly contested subjects are aired. That kind of intellectual rigor can be found on only a few formats these days. I'm thinking especially of the last couple of ``Firing Line'' debates on PBS, where recently the subject was political correctness and some months ago the deficit.

Even the recent North American Free Trade Agreement didn't escape the Silly Putty of most TV formats. Last month's debate between Vice President Gore and Ross Perot on Cable News Network was hyped mightily. Yet I know more than one viewer who turned off the set in dismay after concluding that a gifted and commanding leader like the vice president - and a brilliant analyst like Perot - were sometimes reduced to performing stunts.

Yet that debate was better than a good many others, where spokespeople looking for the limelight rattle off arguments without considering the substance of rebuttals.

Viewers should not be limited to such pitches. We also need to hear logic extensively developed, incisively challenged, and skillfully altered when proven flawed. Is that too much to ask on behalf of an intelligent populace looking for the right answers?

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