If there was any flaw in Alvin Hirsch's article, ''Talking Ourselves Silly,'' in Outlook Jan. 6 on how commercial television is harming public dialogue, it was that of understatement. The demand of television that every forum, even those on serious issues, be entertaining has so permeated our understanding of reality that we are rarely able to reach a consensus on the difficulties facing us.
The point was forcefully underscored for me recently by the Jesse Jackson show, which is carried on Channel 4 Sunday mornings. As one who has written widely on civil rights, I was asked to participate in taping of the one-hour program (to be broadcast Jan. 19 and later), which would commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. It was understood that I would try to inject some thoughts on what could be done to alleviate the slaughter and misery ravaging poor sections of our central cities.
What I found was a circus of confrontation that drowned out any reflective thought. Extremists were brought in to slug it out against one another: a woman in a wheelchair wearing a cowboy hat who insisted blacks should use violence against whites; a black man who said the condition of slums was not primarily due to poverty, unemployment and drugs but to the moral failure of blacks themselves; Evan Mecham, the discredited former governor of Arizona who rose to notoriety by opposing Dr. King's birthday as a holiday; William Bradford Reynolds, the former assistant attorney general in the Reagan era who became a symbol for rolling back enforcement of civil rights laws; and a reputed minister who called Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Mecham fascists and racists.
Talk on any topic would barely get underway before it was broken -- in deference to the TV-inflicted short attention span of Americans -- for commercials and Dr. King's image and message of nonviolence, which seemed hopelessly dated and naive alongside the raucous proceedings in the studio. The program was further hyped by a barker who kept the studio audience furiously clapping throughout, as is done for game shows. The audience had to be seen as happy and excited, when tears would have been more appropriate. There was never a chance to turn the discussion to new thoughts or ideas for erasing probably the most severe blight on American society.
I believe Jesse Jackson is a serious political leader who would like nothing better than a role in leading his people to a better life. But he, like most other public figures, has been captured by the degrading demands of commercial television, now the dominant form of communication. As Neil Postman wrote in his book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business," ''You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against its content.''
JOHN HERBERS Contributing Editor and Columnist Governing magazine Washington