Richard Heffner is a long time professor of Communications and Public Policy at Rutgers University and the producer of PBS’ The Open Mind. Heffner is one of the people responsible for bringing you public television if you’re a New Yorker and descends from the Edward R. Murrow legacy. At the introduction of one of his programs on Murrow, Heffner said:
And whatever it is I have to say in the course of this next half-hour devoted to Edward R. Murrow, must of necessity reflect my devotion to that truly great communicator, a man who so brilliantly used words and pictures, too, to illumine and convey ideas, not to disguise and distort them. Important ideas, too. Ones that many Americans, to be sure, didn’t embrace, but that I did and do. So, fairly warned, do take this into consideration in the course of today’s discussion along with the fact that Mr. Murrow did help me become a broadcaster and stood by me in moments of greatest professional need. Now one further disclaimer, if you will, and then we’ll get on with our program about Edward R. Murrow and his extraordinary biography by Ann Sperber. When I say each week as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck, I’m really not putting on airs as we used to say. I really don’t mean to presume upon a relationship essentially simply that of a profoundly admiring broadcasting novice to an invariably generous mentor to all who wanted the electronic media first and foremost to be a marketplace of ideas, not of products. I say old friend, in fact, as a reflection of my own devotion to this giant among men.
Heffner’s The Open Mind was also home to several interesting conversations with Neil Postman. In December of 1985, Heffner hosted Postman in a program called Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death, Part I with a follow up called Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death, Part II a month later. In January of 1989, Heffner had Postman on again for a program called Neil Postman’s Conscientious Objections. In December of 1990 it was Neil Postman: Informing Ourselves to Death, and finally there was a single appearance double the usual length called How the Past Can Improve Our Future, Part I and Part II aired in November of 1999. If you’re familiar with Neil Postman and his work, you immediately recognize that each of these appearances is precipitated by the release of one of his books, ranging from Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business to Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology, and Education, as well as Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future. For more on his thoughts about Informing Ourselves to Death, you might turn to this interesting speech given at the German Informatics Society in October of 1990.
Heffner, at the start of the Informing Ourselves to Death program begins by saying:
[E]very once in a while I feel the need for what I’ll just call a really powerful intellectual fix, a lift out of the doldrums of everyday discourse. And when I do, I almost invariably think about my friend Neil Postman, author, scholar, and Professor of Communications, Arts and Sciences at New York University, inviting him here to THE OPEN MIND to share with me and with you some of his more outrageous recent opinions about the world around us.
All of this is lead up to a video segment from the PBS program Currents, which followed my previous offering in the post Neil Postman – The ‘TV Guy.’ In this segment we see Marty Goldensohn moderate a discussion about literacy, illiteracy, and aliteracy featuring Richard Heffner and then-American University president Richard E. Berendzen. Berendzen, as you may remember, became infamous a few years later for using his office telephone to make obscene, harassing phone calls to a woman, but has since returned to teach at American and by some accounts is thought of fondly by his students.
That side note aside, the mid-1980s discussion reflects interestingly on contemporary issues as well, as we grapple with the idea of an education gap in our democracy and the disparity between the literate elite and a general public faced with a crumbling education infrastructure. Heffner invokes Postman about halfway through the segment, in reference to the piece that preceded their discussion, but I would suggest that the best way to get some depth on Heffner’s point is to follow the links I provided above to watch the many conversations between the men, all of which are enlightening and interesting to boot. Without further ado, I bring you Currents: Literacy Lost: