PBS host Alexander Heffner stresses fact-based journalism

Alexander Heffner, host of the PBS public affairs program The Open Mind, spoke at Carnegie Mellon about the importance of fact-based, independent journalism and its role in preserving a healthy democracy. He also spoke to the importance of promoting what he termed a “more civil discourse” in today’s polarized world.

“It’s not good enough anymore to be neutral or factual [in journalism],” Heffner said during his talk. Instead, he views journalism as his foremost duty to “promote civility on the airways” and open up a meaningful, substance-based dialogue between different people who may have a lot of disagreement with each other. He states that civility is a prerequisite for opening up a fact-based discourse. This is because the incivility of bigotry tends to lead to obstruction and gridlock, which in extreme form leads to dysfunction. He cites the example of the obstructionist agenda that manifested in Washington after the Tea Party election victories of 2010. He associates the stifling of free thinking resulting from having a bigoted attitude as a “perpetual state of paralysis.”

Given that a lot of issues today are not addressed with the proper level of civility that is required to have a meaningful discussion about them, Heffner makes it his goal for The Open Mind to be a space for this needed respect.

Heffner says that everyone should practice civility in both their real and online lives so that it does not disappear as in, for instance, Trump’s tweets. He used these tweets as a prominent example of behaving uncivilly. Practicing civility means being deliberate about our actions, just as he is deliberate about only inviting guests onto his show who meet a certain criteria for behaving in a respectful manner. However, being deliberate is more difficult because of today’s culture, whether you’re a professional journalist, student journalist, or a citizen. He believes that empathizing with other people is essential, even when they disagree with your views.

During his talk, Heffner also gave some commentary on President Trump. According to Heffner, Trump understands that the viral spread of fake news stories delegitimized the election in the minds of many, and, as a result, Trump turns around and throws the “fake news” label at journalists from well-established media outlets that are giving him negative coverage. Heffner also reiterated that we cannot underestimate the power that free media coverage during the election gave Trump, which, combined with the small seeds of truth that are in many of Trump’s statements, won over many swing state voters.

This connects to the other theme of his lecture: the responsibility of professional journalism and what he saw as the shortcomings of the media coverage during the election cycle.

Heffner acknowledged that those in the media have been “under some scrutiny, you might say politely, and up until Inauguration Day deservedly so.” Heffner questioned whether there was enough rigorous dialogue about social issues relevant to the presidency during the election, or if many journalists instead attempted to appeal to what he termed the “lowest common denominator” when covering the campaign, including during nationally televised debates. He gave the example of CNN, which went live to Trump rallies so often that it consisted of the bulk of the Trump camp’s election coverage. He felt that the “news division was covering Trump as paparazzi.” The 24-hour cable news culture, combined with the truncation of information we consume, were what he termed “a toxic mix” that threatens a free society.

Thus, he said, independent editorial control on media outlets is ever more critical now. This is also the reason journalists cannot and should not be concerned with how many views or likes they get on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets, for what goes viral is often fake. He said we need to “accelerate” both truth and autonomy in the media to counter this culture of fake news by not being subject to the temptations of clickbait or viral stories. In other words, journalists must stay independent of the fiction and circus-like atmosphere that permeated the campaign.

That being said, Heffner does believe that the media is doing a better job at standing up to Trump now. In answering an audience member’s question, he referred to Scott Pelley, the anchor of CBS Evening News, and Jake Tapper, a CNN White House correspondent, comparing them to the late Walter Cronkite, a broadcast journalist dubbed “the most trusted man in America.” “Scott Pelley has sounded more like Cronkite in recent days, calling a lie a lie. Similarly, Jake Tapper has been standing up to [the lies of the administration],” Heffner said.

In today’s culture, Heffner said that journalists “must have a grasp of [the] values,” put into practice when reporting the news.

As for what undergraduate students could do in this context, Heffner told The Tartan that he believes “[one] has to find an opportunity as a young person to channel [one’s] energy constructively. For some people that might be civil disobedience, for some people that might be reporting news and information, for some people that might be volunteerism. But you have ample opportunity to find your passion.”