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PBS host Alexander Heffner discusses need for civil discourse during Speaker Series event

Sep 12, 2019

Posted in: News

By Taylor Burress, Communications Intern (text), Alix Bryan, journalism instructor (photos), and Gary Gillam, Audio and Video Lab Supervisor (video)

The Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences welcomed Alexander Heffner, host of the thought-provoking political PBS show “The Open Mind,” for a discussion on "Civil Discourse in an Uncivil Age: Media and the 2020 Election" on Tuesday. The talk, which was attended by more than 150 students, alumni, faculty and guests from the community, was part of the Robertson School Speaker Series.   

Heffner's grandfather Richard Heffner created the show “The Open Mind” in May 1956. After his grandfather’s death in 2013, Heffner began hosting the program, where he discusses civil discourse for a new generation. 

"It was humbling [and] it was encouraging to have a legacy to look at; a venerable institution to try to further the objectives,” Heffner said. “It was also, I think an opportunity to renew the value of human face to face contact in a digital ecosystem." 

The Speaker Series series highlights the Robertson School’s commitment to important social issues as they relate to media and involves VCU students in the conversation.

"We here at the Robertson school view these speaker series events as an opportunity for all of us to come together beyond the VCU campus to discuss difficult topics," said Dr. Marcus Messner, journalism professor and interim director of the Robertson School.

Dr. Donald Young, interim dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, delivered the opening remarks and associate professor Dr. Bill Oglesby moderated the discussion. The audience participated and engaged Heffner by asking questions and posting on social media.

Heffner addressed many different points in his discussion, including the importance of having informed citizens. 

"On the micro level, I think informed citizenship is the most important thing in our day-to-day lives, in our neighborhoods, in our classrooms, in our towns, and communities," he said.

He emphasized the importance of understanding context, said the lack of it is “killing us” and called on the audience to be accountable in their online actions. Heffner encouraged journalists and citizens to understand “that every single movement we make online and the standards we set for our own use of technology are going to define this next generation." 

Looking ahead at the roles of uncivil discourse and social media in our future, Heffner said he believes there is work to do, but he feels optimistic.

"There's always a correction course and a pendulum that swings back, and I don't think that pendulums swing by magic,” he said. “I think that it takes sometimes a lot of diligent preparation and thoughtful deliberation and decision making to get the pendulum to swing back; but I have confidence that it will swing back."

Heffner hoped the audience would walk away with the message to be more imaginative in responding to the challenges “presented by our political environment and social media.”

"We have to be more imaginative in the way we conceive problems, then frame the problem, then attack them with solutions,” he said.

The Robertson School will soon announce the October event of the Speaker Series. Former Washington Post columnist Bob Levey will speak on Nov. 21 at 6 p.m. in the Student Commons Theater. His talk is titled "From Nixon to Trump: Why our democracy needs strong journalism."

Please view a photo gallery of the event on the Facebook page of the Robertson School