In a media world with few bright spots, I'm thankful for "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

        Every day, people of all ages are watching hyped-up and commercialized TV programs that emphasize surface appearances. Sitcoms often brandish put-downs as cutting edges of humor. When aiming at children, many shows rely on computer-generated glitz.

        But for half an hour, five days a week, Fred Rogers looks into the camera and into the hearts of viewers -- mostly preschoolers -- who hear about simple and humanistic values. Mister Rogers explores how feelings matter. He doesn't talk down. He doesn't dodge tangled emotions. And he engages in plenty of fun.

        There are recurrent moments of whimsy, like saying "Hi fish" to the occupants of a little aquarium. The other day, Rogers devoted a few minutes to playing with brightly colored paper cups, building pyramids. And there are always interludes in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, a kind of parallel mini-universe mainly populated by puppets (who seem more real than most of what passes for reality on television).

        Back in Mister Rogers' neighborhood, a recent chat with a visitor led to a discussion of divorce. Although it can be a painful subject, the host commented, divorce "is something that people can talk about." For many of the several million young kids who regularly watch the program, it's an attitude likely to come in handy.

        Rogers manages to avoid being sappy while he talks -- a lot -- about feelings. Actually, I think that adults could benefit from periodic viewings, whether or not we missed "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" the first time around. (The show has been on PBS for 31 years.) Producers say that "the most important goal" of the program "is to help strengthen a child's sense of self-esteem."

        Implicit in each broadcast is reverence for the uniqueness of every person. In the words of Mister Rogers: "Each one of us is valuable, and there is nobody in the whole world exactly like you."

        The nonprofit company that Rogers chairs, Family Communications Inc., produces a videocassette series called "Different and the Same." Designed for grade-school classroom use, it aims at "helping children identify and prevent prejudice." As Harvard scholar Alvin Poussaint has pointed out, "There is a dearth of materials addressing issues of racism for young children and yet they are exposed to it constantly in our society. 'Different and the Same' is an innovative and carefully conceived project that is very much needed."

        Fred Rogers' on-screen manner is sometimes parodied, even mocked. Maybe it causes appreciable discomfort when a man is so purposely and consistently gentle, year after year, on national television. There's a method to his sanity.

        "Most of us, I believe, admire strength. It's something we tend to respect in others, desire for ourselves, and wish for our children," Rogers wrote in one of his many essays distributed to parents and others who care for kids. "Sometimes, though, I wonder if we confuse strength with other concepts -- like aggression and even violence."

        Rogers added: "One of the signs of this confusion is the way many people seem to consider strength an appropriate attribute of men, while thinking gentleness is something women should possess. To me, that seems very far from the truth. We all need the capacity for both strength and gentleness. The opposite of strength isn't gentleness but weakness, and the opposite of gentleness isn't strength but violence. ... It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it. There is no 'masculine' or 'feminine' when it comes to anger or sorrow, and certainly no weakness in expressing feelings that are human and common to us all."

        The optimism of Fred Rogers is based on decades of slow but cumulative progress that his own efforts have helped to move forward: "I am heartened by the way double standards are being discarded in many arenas where there used to be stereotypic ideas of what men 'should' do. As I look around these days, I can see that we, as a society, are growing in some really important ways."

Norman Solomon's latest book The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media: Decoding Spin and Lies in Mainstream News has just won the 1999 George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language, presented by the National Council of Teachers of English.