It has been a century and a half since the Danish philosopher Sren Kierkegaard looked into the future and imagined a society in which mass communications would play a key role in shaping values and thoughts.
"Suppose someone invented an instrument," he wrote, "a convenient little talking tube which, say, could be heard over the whole land.... I wonder if the police would not forbid it, fearing that the whole country would become mentally deranged if it were used."
He continued, "On the whole the evil in the daily press consists in its being calculated to make, if possible, the passing moment a thousand or ten thousand times more inflated and important than it really is. But all moral elevation consists first and foremost in being weaned from the momentary."
How contemporary and relevant Kierkegaard's comments have seemed this year in the United States, when this "convenient little talking tube," in the form of television and radio, has carried almost nonstop news and opinions about President Clinton's liaison with Monica Lewinsky. For nearly 12 months, round-the-clock talk shows, in examining and rehashing every nuance of the president's behavior, have often vastly inflated the "passing moment," in the process bumping other serious subjects off the news screen.
Impeachment and fallout from a presidential sex scandal rank as historic events, of course, and demand serious, thorough coverage. In this case they have also forced a measure of public reflection on the nation's moral values. But the price of such single-issue coverage has been high.
For a year, important international issues have made headlines - the Irish peace plan, the Wye River accord on the Middle East, the economic instability in Russia, the financial meltdown in Asia, the devastation caused by hurricane Mitch in Central America - then largely disappeared from national consciousness. Domestic issues have done the same.
This preoccupation with one subject, however newsworthy, is enough to raise a tantalizing question: What would happen if the producers and hosts in control of the "little talking tube" applied the same journalistic zeal and intensity to other topics? Social Security, welfare reform, especially the lack of adequate child care for poor mothers, education, and poverty, particularly as it affects children - all deserve sustained focus. Even euthanasia, an issue Jack Kevorkian tried to bring to national attention with his disturbing videotape on "60 Minutes," stayed in the news only briefly. Back to Monica and Bill.
As hopes grow across the country for a speedy and just resolution to the impeachment issue, the time may be ripe to offer another hope - that in 1999, brave news directors will break away from pack journalism and devote air time to a broader range of substantive issues. Cover the momentary, of course. But also take a longer, more reflective view of subjects that affect everyone.
On the eve of a new year - a time for the proverbial blank page and fresh start - Kierkegaard's prescient comments deserve renewed attention. After a year of scandal, a little "moral elevation" could work wonders.