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What Do Mike Nichols and Multi-faith TV Have in Common?

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Two media talkathons grabbed me this week -- each very different, though their messages chimed together in an intriguing way.

One was veteran film, TV and theater director (oh, and one-time improv comedian) Mike Nichols showing up to talk at the New York Times. Not for an article in the paper ... though quite a few rewarding column-inches could well have resulted. It was, in fact, as part of publisher Arthur Sulzberger's efforts to re-invent the Old Gray Lady as "no longer a newspaper company" as he has at times said (often a bit forlornly) but as instead "a media company," that Nichols showed up at a so-called "Times Talks" event.

These attention-getting but unimaginatively labeled affairs take place in the Times Center, an auditorium tacked on to the still-newish and glamorous Renzo Piano-designed media HQ to which the paper moved -- just a few blocks -- from its traditional and eponymous site in Times Square.

The other talking event, at first blush entirely dissimilar, occurred in what's unquestionably a very different venue -- the distinctly unstylish building known familiarly to many New Yorkers as "The God Box," a dreary rectangular structure next to its parent building, the Upper West Side's famous and very gothic Riverside Church.

The "Box" itself is officially named the Inter-Church Center (more dull labeling ... ) and is dedicated to religious cooperation of various kinds; and the event was a conference-cum-workshop held by Odyssey Networks, originally a cable TV outfit, and now in these digital days a multimedia enterprise -- of course. It's an organization comprised of ecumenically-minded communicators from many different denominations -- Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and others, as well as Christian. And in typically searching style, Odyssey's chief, my former British TV colleague as both correspondent and producer, Nick Stuart, discussed religion's multifaceted role in American life with the University of Akron's Professor John Green, author of The Faith Factor, as the event's curtain raiser. (Watch it here.)

It was, though, another wider and less formal session -- which is not being made public -- devoted to politics and religion in this crucial electoral year that connected me again to Mike Nichols, and to the quintessentially American character of his work. The panel chairperson was Lisa Miller, the former Newsweek-er who now writes on religion for the Washington Post, and on many different subjects for New York magazine.

Sounding more categorical than many journalists would probably wish to, Miller asserted that the decision for voters this November is a very basic one ... essentially: "What sort of society are we -- one in which we care for each other, or one where everyone has to look after themselves?"

The echo from Mike Nichols was striking. While being interviewed on the Times Center's stage by the paper's veteran culture writer and editor Charles "Chip" McGrath, Nichols reflected on contemporary political resonances of the Arthur Miller classic Death of a Salesman, with which he's enjoying another career high as his production (starring Philip Seymour Hoffman) plays to sold-out Broadway audiences.

He was a categorical as Lisa Miller. "It's about right now. It's more about now than it was about then," he said, meaning the play's first staging in 1949. "It's not only prescient, it's startling."

He expounded his view that the play's salesman Willie Loman "is not equipped to live in the real world." He felt Willie had nowhere else to go except to his death, in the face of this "real world." It's of course an environment that is clearly, as I wrote in reviewing the production in late March, delineated as:

"an uncaring world, both financial and personal ... conditioned to believe that merely collateral damage, just another incidental casualty, is what we are seeing here ... that it all just comes with the territory -- that market-forces are fate".

So it was with a clinching snap of certainty that I heard Nichols, later in the discussion, sum up so sweepingly the society that America can be said to have become. "As Arthur Miller is constantly reminding us," he said, "we are pure market forces."

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Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.