Television is the greatest tease since Circe. It doesn't want to wade in deep, and it prefers simplification to illumination. Anyone who fights this tendency has a lonely battle ahead, but occasionally the results are as earnest and enlightening as the "Are You Listening?" series produced by the late Martha Stuart. She saw the real communicative possibilities in mass communications and strove to put them to productive good use.
Through the largess of the Ford Foundation, Channel 26, which aired a previous "Listening" discussion in 1981, will show tonight at 11:30 "People Who Have Struggled With Abortion," an "Are You Listening?" half-hour that seems one of the most reasoned and unhysterical discussions ever of a perilously incendiary subject. A group analysis of attitudes and emotional responses, it eschews the combative approach of Phil Donahue for calm and searching deliberation.
Stuart sits at the center of the group and we only hear her ask three or four questions during the entire show. That's because she cut out as many of those as possible, to keep the discussion flowing, when she supervised the editing of the program. It was selflessness in pursuit of edification.
The group includes a young rabbi, a nun, a student, a nurse, an obstetrician and a woman who worked in an abortion clinic but quit soon after dreaming she had opened her briefcase and found it full of dead babies. A former New York state legislator tells why, after years of adamant opposition to abortion, he broke a deadlock with a vote in favor of abortion reform. He had heard too many horror stories of women "mangled" in back-alley operations. The nun tells him, a bit fatuously it seems, that it was "divine inspiration" speaking through him when he cast that vote.
What's important about the broadcast is not that "both sides" are heard from. Stuart was not interested in sides, in polarized politicking, in the fanatics' rhetoric. There's something much more humane at work here. A counselor says when women come to him after abortions he tries to offer "comfort in the case of sorrow, and forgiveness in the case of guilt," and a Catholic woman says she resents the idea of men arguing abortion among themselves and passing laws about it when none of them will ever risk becoming pregnant.
Stuart wants to know why those in the group sound so fair-minded about a subject that often has inspired the shrillest zealousness. "When you start to listen to other viewpoints, I think it does make you more fair," one woman responds. The rabbi says it may be more important to "complicate thinking" than to reduce such topics to the level of "either/ors" and states the obvious but relevant: "In the process of dialogue, answers emerge."
That is the simple but ambitious philosophy behind the "Are You Listening?" series. Before she died of cancer in February at the age of 55, Stuart had completed 50 videotaped discussions of subjects that range from boys with long hair to welfare mothers to Palestinians. The Palestinian program has been picked up by PBS for national exposure sometime this summer. All tapes in the series are available for sale or rental to interested groups.
Stuart's daughter Sally, who worked with her for five years, will continue the series for Martha Stuart Communications. This is work worth doing, worth pursuing, worth sharing. Martha Stuart made it her life's work. To judge from the work, it was a valuable life.