By Evamarie Socha

The Daily Item

Author and nationally syndicated radio host Michael Smerconish said he "often" gets calls to his talk shows where he realizes the caller has issues other than the topic at hand.

"I try to confront what they are saying and keep moving," said Smerconish, who hosts two daily programs that reach 70 radio markets, including News Radio 1070 WKOK in Sunbury.

Calls from people who may be mentally unbalanced are challenging, he said, because he's not a "hang-up host" who will just push a button and be done with the person.

"I am appreciative of those who take the step of calling, and I feel I owe them a chance to express themselves if I take their call," he said, adding, "so long as they can do it quickly and clearly and without hate."

It's the without-hate part that proves tough these days. As news broke of Saturday's gun rampage in Arizona that killed six and critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., debate rose around whether a trend of toxic political rhetoric, particularly on television and radio, is somehow at the heart of the matter.

"When I am confronted by a phone caller who seems a bit off, I try to deal with the person with understanding and with some compassion hoping that their mental wanderings are peaceful," said Than Mitchell, co-host of WKOK's "On the Mark" program with Mark Lawrence. "I am not sure that under the circumstances that we can do more."

Regardless of how the hosts of such programs deal with callers who have issues, "anyone who doubts that we need a national conversation about the lack of civility need only look at the hateful comments being posted on news stories about the shooting," Smerconish said.

He said he read a Politico.com article Monday about Roxanna Green, mother of 9-year-old victim Christina-Taylor Green, "and the back and forth by polar opposites is twisted."

It's the violence by some that brings out the controversy.

However, Ron Honberg, legal director for National Alliance on Mental Illness, a grass-roots mental health advocacy organization in Arlington, Va., said any suggestion regarding the motive in the Arizona case, at this point, is speculative.

"The overwhelming majority of people keep things in context and don't react to what they hear," he said. "As long as I can remember, we've had controversial talk-show hosts. Maybe not to the extent we have now, but we've had them."

Honberg said it's not hard to imagine that someone who may be mentally ill -- suffering from paranoia or delusional thinking, for instance -- is vulnerable to the incendiary political rhetoric, not only in media but also by politicians.

"I think it's a little early to say conclusively that mental illness was involved," he said of the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner. "There are some strong indications that he was experiencing some significant mental-health issues" based on news reports of the perceptions of his classmates, professors and friends.

Recognizing someone with mental issues and getting him help is quicker than toning down the political rhetoric, and may be a solution in the short term.

"Treatment works. There are effective mental-health treatments, not just medications but supportive services," Honberg said. "A lot of people with these illnesses recover and can live meaningful, productive lives."

Meanwhile, Smerconish said consumers of such programs need to see them more as entertainment shows and less as political debate.

"Listeners need to keep in mind that when they are being fed an unthinking all-right or all-left point of view, day after day, it is the modern equivalent of the Saturday morning wrasslin' I grew up watching: It's fake," he said. "It's fine to get your entertainment in that fashion, but don't take it all seriously."

However, Mitchell feels strongly about promoting critical thinking, which, he said, "would cause people to question the rhetoric of any speaker, any commercial or any rant from the right or the left."

"I am caught between my belief that advertising works and freedom of speech, no matter how vile," Mitchell said. "People should understand that our freedom of speech, a necessary and important part of our national discussion, means that almost anything can and will be said and should always trigger skepticism."

Smerconish notes that a political talk show "makes a handful of guys wealthy but doesn't always help inform the country." He said everyone, pundits and the public alike, needs to realize these shows have an impact, and right now "incivility reigns."

"The political tone today is being set by talk radio and cable TV. Politicians, too, get their fix, and then go to Washington and treat colleagues like they are still on a split screen," he said. "The only way it changes is if there is some recognition by listeners and viewers that the political entertainment they listen to and watch is actually injurious to the country, and they turn it off."

Mitchell said he doesn't believe "we can do much to protect ourselves against the rare twisted mind that, for whatever reason, is directed to do some horrible thing."

"I am fairly sure that arming ourselves, or staying home or becoming anti-social is not the answer to this never-ending problem," he said. " More trained people in public schools aimed at problem students and understanding that there are those who do not fit the social mold might be a step in the right direction."

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