- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2001

Make nice, now. It's good for democracy.

With a poll, a pledge and some powerful endorsements, a new anti-gossip group is determined to reinvent civility, quell rumors, neutralize bombast and restore a little dignity to the national debate.

Needless to say, Words Can Heal is beginning its quest to promote ethical speech in Washington.

"This is where verbal abuse can stop. The cycle of gossip is hurting our nation," said founder Rabbi Irwin Katsof. "We hope politicians will take our pledge and set an example."

Their 78-word pledge is a spare, straightforward promise to talk sweet and stay positive "with words that encourage, engage and enrich." The act is simple, empowering and it's free, noted Mr. Katsof; the pledge itself is on the group's Web site (www.wordscanheal.org ).

Capitol Hill cynics may smirk, but the "media and educational" organization bristles with support from major politicians, Hollywood stars, pundits, motivational speakers and President Bush himself, who plans to endorse the program later this month as a low-cost, grass-roots way to bolster community ties.

The group's eclectic advisory board is studded with luminaries like Republican Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and John McCain of Arizona, Democratic Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Tom Daschle of South Dakota; Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, actors Tom Cruise and Goldie Hawn, singer Ricky Martin, Mort Zuckerman of U.S. News & World Report and Robert H. Schuller, founding pastor of the Crystal Cathedral.

"I am convinced words have enormous power," Mr. Schuller said. "They are either balm or bombs. They can level us or lift us."

The group is putting $300,000 where its well-mannered mouth is with new print ads, bus posters and TV spots in the Washington area this week, plus a free handbook suggesting vignettes for a kinder, gentler world. The aforementioned senators also will introduce a proposal for a national "Words Can Heal Day."

Washington pollsters Frank Luntz and Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, meanwhile, tallied the statistics — a rude awakening indeed. According to a survey taken two weeks ago, an estimated 117 million Americans listen to or share gossip each week; 88 percent said reducing rumor-mongering in schools, at work and within families should be a priority.

Overwhelmingly, the poll found the news media and politicians were the very worst offenders, and presented a "very significant problem."

The press honed a stealthy new form of gossipy news gathering during the Clinton administration: facts embroidered with anonymous hearsay, all to pad out limited content for the 24-hour news cycle. The practice continues unabated.

While Mr. Bush has received laudatory mention by both political parties for his pledge to "change the tone" and lower the rhetoric in Washington, lawmakers have little to show for their biennial "civility retreats" in recent years.

The group has resolved to take its message nationwide in future weeks. "The first step," said Mr. Katsof, "is for people to acknowledge that gossip and verbal abuse has real consequences. We believe that Americans agree with us."

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