His set lacks glitz — it’s just a table, two chairs and a black backdrop — and his audience is far from the size of Bill O’Reilly’s.
But Alexander Heffner is, in a modest way, trying to do battle with our fractious world, as seen on TV.
The 27-year-old’s weapon of choice is a weekly 30-minute public-affairs television show called “The Open Mind.”
Everything about it seems countercultural, even radical, given this disagreeable and high-decibel moment in American history.
Low-key, in-depth conversations with very little emphasis on politics?
A civil tone, with not a rant to be heard and no ego in sight? And this, on one of the longest-running shows on television?
Yes, that’s the plan, week after deliberate week. (The show airs locally on WETA at 11 a.m. Sundays, and at 3:30 p.m. Sunday on many other public television stations nationally, as well as from its home base in New York.)
“Being an outlier in television right now is to focus on intellectually rigorous things,” Heffner said in an interview. “It’s a steep mountain to climb to compete with the culture of talking points.”
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.
“The First Amendment is one of our top priorities, which is why funding this made sense for us, especially with ‘The Open Mind’ having such a long history of promoting civil conversation,” said Jennifer Preston, the Knight Foundation’s director of journalism.
This month, as part of the series, Heffner conversed with Jameel Jaffer, the director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which defends free speech in the digital age.
With author Caitlin Flanagan, an editor at the Atlantic, Heffner took up the touchy debate about speech and safe spaces on college campus. (That episode, “Sanitizing Speech,” aired this weekend. All the episodes remain available online.)
Other guests in the free-expression series, which concludes in January, are Tom Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive, on “Declassifying the Presidency”; and Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, on social-media platforms as “Incubators of Hate.”
It all comes amid increasing worry that First Amendment rights are vulnerable. The tensions between privacy and security, and between political correctness and free expression, make this “a bewildering time,” Heffner said.
The show’s format couldn’t be simpler. It’s a conversation, led by Heffner, lasting 30 minutes, with no commercials, fancy graphics or shouted feuds. It’s remarkably low-snark and high-substance.
Heffner’s partner in the 60-year-old show is his 89-year-old grandmother, Elaine Heffner, its executive producer.
Her late husband, Richard Heffner, a historian and Rutgers professor — and the longtime chairman of the U.S. film industry’s ratings board — was the show’s host for almost 58 years. He died in 2013.
“What distinguishes the talk is that it is talk that is seldom heard elsewhere on television,” John Corry wrote of “The Open Mind” in the New York Times in 1987, according to Heffner’s Times obituary.
He added: “For one thing, people speak in whole passages; Mr. Heffner would sooner dive under the tablecloth than needlessly interrupt. When he does interrupt, it’s because he has something to say.”
His grandson takes the same approach. As a onetime guest on the show, I can testify to its deliberate — almost glacial — pace, and startling restraint.
Alexander Heffner clearly doesn’t believe in full-frontal assaults, but his commentary on commercial television is pointed nonetheless.
Commercial TV, he said, “is struggling with how to engage in the public-affairs conversation and not to boil everything down to the least common denominator and degrade itself.”
If Campaign 2016 taught us nothing else, it left that undeniable lesson.
Can such a mild approach make a difference? Maybe it won’t quiet the din, but Heffner thinks it’s important to try.
“We’re hoping,” he said, “to model the kind of discourse to which we aspire.”
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan.