Alexander Heffner, host of “The Open Mind,” a 30-minute public affairs show on PBS, spoke to a number of groups at Browning on February 13, including parents, Middle and Upper School boys, and the student newspaper (Grytte) staff. His topic, “Civility, Truth and the Future of American Democracy,” focused on the need to engage in face-to-face discussions and the ability to “agree to disagree.” The importance of debating a given topic in depth and with civility is central to democracy, according to Mr. Heffner, who was a keynote speaker at a recent conference held at the University of Copenhagen. A graduate of Andover and Harvard, Mr. Heffner is also a native New Yorker.
A November 29, 2016, column in The Washington Post explained his approach: “ ’Being an outlier in television right now is to focus on intellectually rigorous things,” [Mr. Heffner said in an interview]. ‘It’s a steep mountain to climb to compete with the culture of talking points.’ ” The Post column also noted, “His latest focus is on free speech and its role in democracy, thanks to a $100,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The idea is to explore matters from free expression (or its lack) on college campuses to hate speech on the Internet. It’s all done with an eye toward protecting free expression.”
Mr. Heffner described commercial television as “struggling with how to engage in the public-affairs conversation and not to boil everything down to the least common denominator and degrade itself.” He told his Browning audience that it is important to watch non-profit programming on PBS and the BBC, as such outlets are not driven by money and commercial advertising. He believes civility and his mild approach on “The Open Mind” are necessary in order to make a difference: “We’re hoping,” he said, “to model the kind of discourse to which we aspire.”
Grytte staff members followed up on Mr. Heffner’s comments by asking his opinion on current events and topics such as President Trump’s tweeting, the controversy over his nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, etc., and how these matters affect the future of journalism.