The Echo talks to PBS’s Alexander Heffner

By Hannah Southwick

Alexander Heffner, the host of The Open Mind on PBS, strives to create a platform upholding accuracy and civility in an age of bombastic political rhetoric. In “Civil Discourse in an Uncivil Era,” Monday’s talk sponsored by the Goldfarb Center, Heffner encouraged students to play an active role in ending the “devolution of discourse.”

“I’ve tried to devote my career to preserving rig- or in public discourse,” said Heffner in an interview with the Echo prior to the event. “It really just takes one look at the headlines to see we’re not as proud as we should be of the rhetoric emanating from elected officials, and it’s on us to correct what seems to be a plague on discourse.”

For Heffner, promoting journalistic integrity runs in the family. His four-plus years at The Open Mind follow in the footsteps of his grandfather Richard Heffner, a former host. Curiosity about the past was also integral to his career path, and he sees historical context as an essential ingredient in a compelling argument.

“It’s important that we bring history into contemporary reporting as much as possible,” said Heffner. “How can you ground what you’re doing in something that is going to survive and have value beyond that week?”

Heffner values work that endures, driving his passion for reporting on young people’s political involvement. After dedicating much of his early career to chronicling millennial civic engagement, particularly in respect to the 2008 election, he now aims to reach the next generation through the PBS platform.

“The phrase ‘keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out,’ is integral,” Heffner said. “I think we have to be watchful that the next generation’s brains are not falling out. We are being tested now.”

Throughout his talk, Heffner addressed the origins of uncivil discourse and encouraged students to reflect on America’s founding documents to preserve the country’s foundational “lifeblood.” Rather than forming an explicit connection with the 2016 presidential election, he cited the overall increase of bigotry as a contributing factor.

“If we together can take a constructive approach to protecting our collective well-being, then let that not be a conservative or a liberal ideal, let that be an American, patriotic ideal from the newspaper world to social media,” said Heffner in his talk. “We need to find empathy for zip codes that aren’t our own and respect for the way folks in the neighboring state live.”

He proposed macro and micro solutions to issues, and encouraged the audience to think critically about the type of information they consume.

With the goal of reducing incivility, Heffner advocated for fostering more bipartisan dialogue and cultivating an informed media presence.

“How are the media going to report in a way that is constructive when the very competition of ideas is segregated from the outset?” Heffner asked during his address. “How can we interview candidates in a way that is going to be critical…but also imaginative in the way we can restore functionality and deliberation?”

Through his speaking engagements, Heffner leaves audiences with an actionable message and highlights the “energy in the air,” when young people get involved.

“Some talk about a constitutional crisis, but I think there’s a societal crisis and that young people are really pivotal to extricating our society,” said Heffner. “It gives me a lot of hope.”