The Millennial Who’s Disrupting Disruption
Alexander Heffner and the case for keeping traditional media EXACTLY THE SAME.
Clean-cut, can-do Alexander Heffner (never Alex) is twenty-six years old. He went to Harvard. He has high hopes for technology. He has high hopes for journalism.
And he has zero plans to start a disruptive media company. Instead, he plans to offer—to keep offering—what he calls “a glimmer of hope to inform the citizenry in a Trumpian America.”
Heffner’s staunch resistance to disruption is bold. And it’s especially impressive when contrasted with the destructive baby-with-the-bathwater media startups of his contemporaries. Compare Heffner’s plan to inform the citizenry with another media project that popped up in journalists’ inboxes recently:
So that’s why Heffner is my current media idol. The kid has every incentive in the world to chase cannabis dollars by cultivating influencers and optimizing social media. Who wouldn’t throw his hat in on that promising project? Not Heffner. As he says, “We’re seeing the culmination of a decades-long celebrity death-match against the public good.” And so, being the enchanting young fogey that he is, Heffner has decided to hold fast to good old public television.
In particular, Heffner’s fortunes lie with “The Open Mind,” the show he produces and hosts that brings to mind non-buzzwords like “venerable” and “august.” An unabashedly square Q&A news program, “The Open Mind” was started by Heffner’s grandfather, Richard Heffner, in 1956; it has been on air and in the family for 60 years. (The program airs nationally on PBS stations on the WORLD Channel at 3:30 pm on Sundays; it can also be seen online.)
“The Open Mind” is nothing if not legacy journalism — a holdover from the days not only before social media existed but before media by that name did.
But it just works. The show is so consistently compelling that it’s the the longest-running program on PBS. For context: The run of “The Open Mind” is so long it makes warhorses like “60 Minutes” (48 years), “Masterpiece Theatre” (45 years) and “General Hospital” (53 years) look like upstarts.
So what’s the golden-goose concept of this show that accounts for its persistence since the Eisenhower era, when people smoked on TV and casting directors considered “hulking and glowering” a great look in a TV host? (Hi, Ed Sullivan!)
Maybe it’s the directive of “The Open Mind”: a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas, as Richard Heffner once described it. Heffner’s guests are not themselves interrogated, as if in a FOX News hot-seat. Their ideas are. Then, against a black background that conjures deep, mental space, they are permitted free range of those ideas, as (beholden to no advertising cadence) they think at liberty, and out loud. This is a show that addresses our highest selves, and insists on overestimating the intelligence of the American public—and then proving that’s not an overestimation.
Episodes of the pre-Alexander “Open Mind” are legendary: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Elie Wiesel, Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Diane Feinstein, Thurgood Marshall. Look at even one of these episodes—say the mini-masterpiece called “The New Negro,” with Martin Luther King, Jr., which I reviewed when it was rebroadcast in 2005—and the show’s singular dynamic becomes plain. Rigorous, but civil, discussion of actual ideas. (Not the pep-talks and secular homilies that often pass for ideas at TED these days.)
But that dynamic didn’t end when Richard Heffner died in 2013, at 88. He had charged his grandson with putting the show on social media, and—after taking “The Open Mind” to Twitter and Facebook—Alexander quickly stepped up to old host role, too. He’s continued to choose incisive topics like artificial intelligence, drones, voter suppression, and the sex lives of the founding fathers. Heffner’s guests, too, are surprising: Moby, Jill Soloway, Bill Keller, Baratunde Thurston, Macy Gray, Karenna Gore, Susie Essman.
Recent guests include Mexico president Ernesto Zedillo; Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow; Southern Coalition for Social Justice director Anita Earls; International Refugee Assistance Project founder Becca Heller; and NASA scientist James Hansen. Authors appearing as guests this season: Michael Lynch (The Internet of Us), Jon Grinspan (The Virgin Vote), Cathy O’Neil (Weapons of Math Destruction), Alexa Koenig (Hiding in Plain Sight) and and…me (Magic and Loss)!
Just before Alexander sat down with me for a half-hour of 150-proof conversation about the Internet — and a lot of other things besides— I turned to him to ask about “The Open Mind.”
VH: Tell about the genesis of “The Open Mind” — what was the idea for it, what was the business of television like then, and where did it fit into the general landscape of programming?
AH: This was the advent of a revolutionary broadcast age. My grandfather discovered the medium at the Columbia University radio station and soon thereafter on the tube. His mission statement was “a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas,” or, as my grandfather later quoted Barnard College dean Virginia Gildersleeve, “To keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” I sign off each week with the first half of that sentiment, though the latter is important too. Today television is a TelePrompTer affair. But “The Open Mind” is devoted to free expression in the public interest. To that end, there is no answer too long or complex. My grandfather encouraged his guests to think aloud — a welcome departure from today’s talking points-driven news.
VH: Where does “The Open Mind” tack against Newton Minow’s complaint fifty-plus years ago that television is a “vast wasteland”?
AH: When joining me for a retrospective on his “Vast Wasteland” premonition, Minow reflected on the miracle of PBS. It was truly an improbable birth in a full-fledged capitalist system. In the race to the bottom of the present media/political industrial complex, that question is foremost on my mind. When you can deliver insults, lies and ahistorical fictions with impunity on most programming, “The Open Mind” is a sanctuary for context, an escape into respectful listening amid the noise. It’s one of the few remaining (if not only) civic educations on television. We’re seeing the culmination of a decades-long celebrity death-match against the public good. I view my job as helping to drive civility and the groundwork for consensus in our public discourse.
VH: Give me your top 5 episodes and tell why.
AH: I’ll give nine!
1. Aloe Blacc, “The Soul Man.” The most sincere expression of “We are the World” since Michael Jackson, a call to feed the malnourished urban poor.
2. Guy Davis, “Blues for Democracy.” A first-of-its-kind “Open Mind” musical performance to heal racial inequity
3. Bernie Sanders, “Democracy in Disrepair.” A pre-candidacy formulation of his argument against American oligarchy
4. Astra Taylor, “A People’s Platform,” and Sue Gardner, “Reflections of a Wikimaniac” (Parts I and II). Who runs the world? Wikipedia, more than ever. Why aren’t social networks nonprofits in theory and practice? These two founding mothers of the tech age are brilliant.
5. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The New Negro.” The Civil Rights icon shows his power of persuasion.
6. Neil Postman, “Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?” (Parts I and II). The most prescient explanation of the Trump phenomenon
7. Stephen Breyer, “Active Liberty” (Parts I and II). How a Supreme Court Justice thinks.
8. Milton Friedman, “Living Within Our Means.” A defense of the conservative economic agenda of the 80s—and later 200os.
9. Ruth Westheimer, “Good Sex with Dr. Ruth. A nine-time guest who discussed sexuality with great gusto (and intelligence).
I recently wrote about how we are “amusing ourselves to death,” in Postman’s words, through “trickle-down discourse,” a term yours truly devised to describe what partisan politicians and the media have used to dim nuances of policy to polarize us. We’re getting poorer and dumber as a consequence.
VH: What was your ideal viewer like at the premiere — and what’s she like now?
AH: She wants to be stimulated intellectually. The ideal viewer then and now wants genuine dialogue and listening. While it’s updated for Millennial ears, the intro continues to be what my grandfather called “mental health music.” The viewer now is more diverse, more likely to stream or download our podcast, but her thirst for substance — a refuge from the frivolous — is more intense than ever.
VH: What is it like having “The Open Mind” as a family business?
AH: It’s inspiring. My grandmother, Elaine Heffner, is executive producer of the broadcast. She is my most steadfast supporter. We talk politics regularly and are each other’s first calls after Election Night returns and presidential debates. Her loyalty to The New York Times Book Review has led to more than one guest appearance on the show. My grandfather would marvel proudly at her personal fortitude. I do.
VH: Tell about a snafu on the set.
AH: Cufflinks and jewelry constantly threaten audio. But most anxiety-ridden is when you fear a no-show. Thankfully, my guest attendance is perfect. However, tardiness not so much. Wesleyan University president Michael Roth was stuck in traffic en route to the studio from Middletown, Connecticut, and barely made it to our shop before close. What a relief, because that was one my favorite interviews, an intellectually energizing discussion on the future of higher education.
VH: Was the show ever threatened with cancellation?
AH: I can’t speak to the entire history. But my grandfather was a tireless champion of educational television. Those values over years were tested but triumphed. We don’t measure year-by-year ratings, so that’s not how we measure success. I will say the promise of PBS is editorial independence from the profit-making imperative. This couldn’t be overstated in the 2016 campaign coverage. Clicks are debasing us. Thankfully, on “The Open Mind,” ideas — not ratings — make the cut.
VH: How has “The Open Mind” tracked with the history of ideas?
AH: The show has been cutting-edge and certainly not controversy-averse. In fact, “The Open Mind” provided the first broadcast platform to prominent Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. It has extensively grappled with the marginalized—socially, economically and politically—from discussions of homosexuality to bioethics, genocide to poverty. The evolution of ideas is also visible: the pendulum swinging from regress to progress and back. In recent years, we’ve tracked debates central to public access. For example, our programs with Robert Darnton, John Palfrey and most recently Dan Cohen on our historical record.
VH: Tell about a sea change in the direction, appearance, or business of “The Open Mind.” What has affected it the most in its 60 years?
AH: Since assuming the mantle, I have focused in particular on the intersection of politics and our civic life, across the arenas of (new and old) media, education, technology and the arts. The appearance of a black backdrop — creator of the around-the-table conversational format — remains intact. The most recent change in direction is our transition into national distribution again. It builds us as an ideas-focused Sunday alternative to the commercial cable/network politics shows.
VH: How do you see the future of the program?
AH: As a glimmer of hope to inform the citizenry in a Trumpian America. More responsible for creating this culture than the GOP is the American public education system and its failure to teach civics (ethics, morality, and, yes, law). The media must recognize their responsibility to prioritize these values over the bigotry-inspired clickbait. In April I was the Keynote Speaker at the 5th Annual Restoring Respect Conference at the University of San Diego. I explored the vicious cycle of incivility marring public discourse/culture (and the consequent divisiveness, hate-mongering and obstructionism in our politics) as well as well as a civic media blueprint to correct course.