‘The Open Mind’ promotes understanding

The longest-running series on PBS continues to attempt to offer a thoughtful discussion of political and societal topics of the day.

Courtesy of Vincent Verdi
Host Alexander Heffner interviews Ottmar Liebert on the TV show 'The Open Mind.'

In an age of contentious cable television talk shows and sometimes acrimonious online discussion, the longest-running series on PBS continues to offer a calm tone. The acclaimed program “The Open Mind” was launched in 1956 by author and Rutgers University professor Richard Heffner, who hosted the program until he died in 2013.

His grandson, Alexander Heffner, took over the host’s chair in 2014 and brings both a classicist’s and a 21st-century perspective to a mass media institution that has featured the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Betty Friedan, Henry Kissinger, and Isaac Stern. “I consider myself an old soul,” says 26-year-old Mr. Heffner. “I like to tell people that I still grew up with Encyclopædia Britannica while it was being fused with the Wikipedia culture in which we reside today.”

“The Open Mind” has kept the “civil” in civil discourse. With its single-guest format, political and societal topics unfold thoughtfully over the course of a half hour every week.

“I see Alexander retaining the essentials,” Elaine Heffner, executive producer for “The Open Mind” and Richard’s widow, writes in an email. “An ability to listen, engage in real dialogue about the issue at hand and facilitate the guest’s ability to express his or her viewpoint to the best degree possible.”

Recent guests on the show have included Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School; actor/director/producer Rob Reiner; and Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan.

Heffner notes that while his grandfather launched “The Open Mind” close to the dawn of television, his own national career began just as social media and podcasts were coming into the public consciousness.

“Certainly we’ve endeavored as a family to be in public service – my father’s a lawyer,” Heffner says. “So it’s an honor and a humbling act to be the torchbearer into the future.”

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