The Open Mind at 50
VTR Date: July 6, 2006
William F. Baker and Richard Heffner discuss the history of the Open Mind.
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GUEST: Richard D. Heffner
BAKER: For better than half a century Richard Heffner has been sitting right here, talking to interesting people from all walks of life. And to celebrate Open Mind’s 50th anniversary I thought it might be fun to literally turn the tables on Dick and ask him a few questions about himself and the landmark program he created.
I’m Bill Baker, President of Thirteen and Channel 21. Now listen, Dick, this is, this is a crazy spot for me to be in … are you a little, are you a little nervous?
HEFFNER: I don’t know whether I care for this spot …
HEFFNER: … Bill, I’m usually the one, and I’ve said it to guests when they’ve asked me a question …
HEFFNER: … I’ve said, “This is my program, I’m running it.” I think there’s something disturbing about being on the spot this way, unless you’re accustomed to it. And I should think you, with all of your appearances are accustomed to that. You’ve done such a great job at Thirteen.
BAKER: Well, I … I’ve done … well, thank you for the nice compliments, but I guess I am used to being a guest. I am not used to being a host, so actually I’m a little nervous. (Laughter) And I … let’s, let’s think about a few things that … and one of the things that, that Richard said I could do, was ask anything. And we haven’t pre-rehearsed this, we’re just going to find out, over this next hour everything I can about this program and about Richard. When did this program start? I said fifty years which seems almost impossible in the television world, since Channel 13, itself, is only about 43 years old …
HEFFNER: It …
BAKER: How did it all start?
HEFFNER: It began at Channel 4 in New York on what was then called WRCA-TV, now WNBC-TV, began in May 1956 … honest to God … Bill. This has been around for a little more than 50 years now. And I had been on the air before, so if you talk about longevity … hey, here it is.
BAKER: Well, what … what did you do? Now, were you a … were you a news reporter? I mean how did you wind up with a television show on then WRCA and what time was the show on?
HEFFNER: It was on various times. It was live then.
HEFFNER: And we were on on the weekend, sometimes … I think we began at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday.
BAKER: MmmHmm. That’s a pretty good …
HEFFNER: We were on Sundays. Then basically all over the lot. And then WGBH in Boston picked us up almost immediately we went on the air.
HEFFNER: So we had some then educational television exposure. But I’d been a college professor who started in broadcasting when, happily, Edward R. Murrow saw me in his office, it happened to be the day after the McCarthy … the famous McCarthy broadcast …
BAKER: Wow. Wow.
HEFFNER: And he helped me get started. And I was a newscaster on ABC radio. Later I was to go to CBS as an executive. Then I was Director of Public Affairs programs on Channel 4 in New York. And Steve Krantz, the program director said to me one day, “We need more public service …”
BAKER: MmmHmm. You don’t hear that too often these days.
HEFFNER: You don’t need to.
HEFFNER: I mean what is needed today in the era of deregulation?
BAKER: Making more money is what’s needed in the era of deregulation.
HEFFNER: You sound as though you don’t do that at Channel Thirteen.
BAKER: No. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: The hell with it.
BAKER: (Laughter) But … so, so you were already a seasoned broadcaster 50 years ago.
HEFFNER: Yeah. I’m an old man.
BAKER: You said something, you said something that interested me about Edward R. Murrow. You were with Edward R. Murrow the day after that … the famous broadcast. Tell me what his demeanor was like at that time. What the conversation was like in the office. I mean I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall.
HEFFNER: I was just going to say, “I was just a fly on the wall then”.
HEFFNER: But briefly … tension …
HEFFNER: Was the key word there and the key feeling. And I hadn’t known Murrow before then. He saw me because Earl Warren, who was Governor of California before that time, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court … had written to him asking him to see this “young” American historian who had been his daughter Virginia’s teacher.
But when I got to the office everything was incredibly tense. And you know, Bill, I don’t know how you feel about this, but I’ve wondered over the years whether that tension wasn’t, in part, stemming from the realization on Ed’s part that he had used the enormous power of this medium in a way that it had never been used before. And one I had to wonder whether that was so totally a good thing.
BAKER: You know when you think about history and you think about the reality of what happened … really … and you think about the way it has been romanticized and reported over the years. There are a lot of nuances that are lost. And, and one never knows exactly … at least I don’t … what is right. Especially with a medium this powerful. And then it was even, in a sense more powerful, because there were only three stations on the air … right … I mean and he basically had all of the audience. So he was literally one individual … who was literally talking to America.
HEFFNER: You know, after Murrow did that broadcast on McCarthy, then McCarthy was given, by Murrow and Friendly, time to reply …
HEFFNER: … some weeks later … and then Gilbert Seldes, that wonderful media critic, who was a dear friend of Ed’s wrote a piece in “The Saturday Review”, in which, at the end he wrote “I thought I saw the ghost of Hitler”.
Now when I show my students the, the kinescope of Ed’s program, the McCarthy program, and I then give them the Seldes piece to read … and I ask, “Who do you think he was referring to? What was he referring to?” And they invariably say, “McCarthy”. But I do believe he was referring to …
HEFFNER: Well, to Murrow using that power.
HEFFNER: The incredible power you have as the person who calls the shots at Thirteen and 21. And in other ways, too.
BAKER: I don’t feel like I have much power, to be honest, Dick. One of the things … just a digression … one of the things that I especially found different in public television, having, like you … come from a commercial television world and I was a television producer and manager of, of commercial broadcasting stations … is that I walked into Channel 13 one day and told … I think I told this story on your program here and told a producer, “well, why don’t you do this, this and this … “ that were no, you know, not really substantive things, they were not editorial comments, they were just really production comments. And the person looked up at me and said, “No.”
I said, “No?”, I said, “Am I the president here?” And I sad, “Why did you say ‘no’? And he or she said, “Well, because we don’t do things that way. It’s not what I want to be creatively.” And I thought … at first I was angry, and then I thought for a moment, “Boy, that’s really wonderful. This is really a different kind of institution.”
And I can tell you that channels 13, 21, other public stations in America are pretty much that way today. There really is still some creative integrity, if you will, at these places.
But back to you. Speaking of creative integrity … fifty years … this incredible program. Was the show itself your idea, or was it somebody else’s and you were just the hired … you were just that good looking guy that they found in the hallway they found to host it.
HEFFNER: No to all of those statements.
HEFFNER: Steve Krantz said we needed another public … more public service credit.
HEFFNER: Think of a program.
HEFFNER: Well, talk is cheap.
HEFFNER: And I had a hundred dollars a week to produce this program.
BAKER: You still have that. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: (Laughter) No. Less. Less. And Steve said, “Think of a half hour program.” And I had a production assistant there, a wonderful young woman who had worked on “Princeton 56” which was a network program I had done at NBC. And I asked her if she would give me a list of possible titles for a talk program.
HEFFNER: And she came up with a list and on it was “The Open Mind”. And I said, “God, that’s it.”
HEFFNER: And I said, “Please look to see if someone else is using it.” And it turned out that J. Robert Oppenheimer had just published a book by that name. Now I know the lawyers told me I didn’t have to, but I called Oppenheimer and asked … and told him what I wanted to do and asked him if he objected and he said, “No.”
Now I’ve wondered ever since. How could that have happened and I didn’t invite him to be on the program.
BAKER: Yeah, I was just going to say … didn’t you ask him on the show?
HEFFNER: I didn’t. Bill, one of the many stupid things I am guilty of over these 50 years, plus. Put the program on … Barbara Davidson went up to the NBC Music Library and picked out a few things for me to listen to. I listened to them and I decided that this kind of mental health music, that many people are annoyed by …
HEFFNER: … still begins and ends The Open Mind … was … in fact, each year I get two or three calls of letters saying “If you don’t cut out that damn music I’m not going to watch your program any more.”
HEFFNER: There it is, it began May 1956. And, ah …
BAKER: And who was the first guest?
HEFFNER: The first guest … guests because at the beginning, it was a roundtable as it is today but with …
BAKER: With people.
HEFFNER: … three guests. We did it on the Presidency. It was in the middle of the presidential race or, that was about to begin in 1956 …
HEFFNER: … Stevenson versus the incumbent President, Dwight Eisenhower. And Allan Nevins, the American historian from Columbia. Bill Lechtenburg, William Lechtenburg … with whom I did a program recently to go back the 50 years on the American Presidency … Richard Neustadt …
HEFFNER: The eminent political scientist. And Lawrence H. Chamberlain, who was a political scientist. All … I must say to you … from Columbia University, my alma mater.
BAKER: Are you teaching there now, or are you still …
HEFFNER: No, I …
BAKER: I know you’re teaching … but it’s not at Columbia.
HEFFNER: I’ve been a University Professor of Communications and Public Policy at Rutgers for more years than I can possibly remember. Went back to Rutgers in 1964. In fact had been there in the late 1940s. See, everything that has to do with me, Bill, has to do with decades and decades … and half centuries ago.
BAKER: That’s great. Well, now, while we’re on the subject of, of teaching and education. Tell me about your experiences with students. Do you find … I mean you know … since you’ve been teaching for decades, and I taught for a while and then stopped and went back and I found students to be, I thought, quite different from what I remembered them to be. Do you have any kind of comments about students of today and yesteryear?
HEFFNER: Well, there are always a few wonderful, outstanding students. Evan Gold, the young man I introduced you to as working for Channel 13 now …
HEFFNER: … had been just a wonderful student of mine at Rutgers and then was an Intern on The Open Mind. I could name many, many other students. But there is a difference. We’ve dumbed-down as a nation …
HEFFNER: You saw that in your teaching.
HEFFNER: Which is why, by the way, I think Channel 13 plays such an important role in our national life. You don’t “dumb-down”. And I think other teaching aspects of American life have “dumbed-down”. I know that in my classes at Rutgers I give a shorter and less intense reading list now than I did ten years ago, or twenty years ago, or forty years ago, or whatever.
HEFFNER: I think, to a large extent, our medium … not Thirteen and what you do with Thirteen, but the medium itself is partially responsible for that. People don’t read anywhere near as much.
HEFFNER: Reading is much more difficult. I have students now, who when I ask them to read John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”, find it enormously difficult and I just can’t understand that except as the beady red eye up there has turned them from readers to viewers.
BAKER: I think that’s correct and it’s really a shame. I don’t know what role the Internet will have on all of this, but the way you read on the Internet is quite different from reading significant writings.
HEFFNER: What do you think is going to happen?
BAKER: I don’t know. I, I don’t want to be a pessimist. But I have to say I’m a little pessimistic about education in general. And that’s why we’re doing everything we can to kind of hold up our end of that spectrum. There are though some truly gifted teachers and the future is probably going to be in this self-sacrificing gifted teaching. That some great teacher will make something wonderful happen and maybe start a revolution and that’s what I keep counting on.
And, of course, we, in the media … in educational media have a real responsibility and we’ve worked very, very hard at using the Internet and other forms of, of tools that we have available to us to try to do some profound new ways of educating people. And so far it’s worked. And we’ve also celebrated teachers. We did a big, big thing in New York earlier this year for … we had 10,000 teachers show up to the Hudson Piers for the celebration of teaching and learning that was sponsored by Channels Thirteen and 21. It was an incredible event; two days with distinguished speakers, demonstrations of new technology; great educators. It was, it was very exciting. But now back to … enough of me.
HEFFNER: No, no, no.
BAKER: No, no, no. Listen, listen, listen … I’m the host of this show. Back to you.
BAKER: Back to you. Fifty years of programs, we’ve talked about the very first one; this is now the last one for the moment, but there are many more, we hope, maybe another decade or more to go.
HEFFNER: Thank you.
BAKER: What about, what about the people you’ve interviewed. I know it’s unfair to say, “Do you have a favorite?”. I’m going to ask all those things anyway … do you have a favorite? But, over all those years a few must just jump out at you that were especially interesting and important.
HEFFNER: Oh, sure. The, the … the trouble is, when I list them, I go on and on and on …
BAKER: Well, let’s go.
HEFFNER: Whether it was Martin Luther King back in 1957 … the program had been on one year and Dr. King came, I literally had to introduce him on the air …
HEFFNER: It’s one of the few programs we preserved in kinescope … again …
BAKER: What a priceless thing.
HEFFNER: It is a wonderful, wonderful thing to have. Mario Cuomo, I always say was just ….
BAKER: Interesting. Smart man.
HEFFNER: Remains a terrific … smart man.
HEFFNER: With a good sense of humor and Margaret Mead was a delightful guest. Max Lerner. You know this summer I’ve run a retrospective of Golden Oldies from The Open Mind … they are past and passed … p-a-s-t and p-a-s-s-e-d guests, so they’re not with us anymore, but Allan Bloom, who wrote “The Closing of the American Mind”. The British psychiatrist Laing; the American physician Lew Thomas. Some of those people are just absolutely wonderful.
One thing that happens, Bill, is now in the day of … we don’t do anything live any longer … beyond news programs essentially. I go home and I watch the program and my wife always has to laugh, because I sit there with this big silly smile on my face, because I’m so thrilled by so many of my guests. And what it is they are willing to say. You know this is a conversation and it’s wonderful to hold and conduct them with these people.
BAKER: Well, of course, much of this is a compliment to you and the way you host this program and do these conversations. You’re a trusted and nuanced, smart, gentle and probing interviewer and people appreciate that. There are no tricks up your sleeve.
HEFFNER: Yes there is.
BAKER: What’s the trick?
HEFFNER: There is a trick. Although we don’t see it in this program, because I’m the guest …
HEFFNER: … and you’re the host. Essentially I’m a listener. And I think that is the most important aspect to teaching. To listen to, to evoke from your students, from your guests, whoever is sitting opposite you, what it is they have to say. They’re the ones. My guest are always the ones who are relating themselves to my audience. The audience doesn’t particularly want to hear what I have to say. And I agree with them. It is important to listen to the guest and to tease out of her or out of him what he has to say, or she has to say. To put the guest’s best foot forward. That’s what I see as the function of The Open Mind.
BAKER: Now, even though this program is taped. It’s taped to live, so if we mess up, it’s going to be … it’ll be the way …
HEFFNER: It will be your fault.
BAKER: It will be the way it is. But, speaking of listening and asking those kind of probing kind of questions in your usual disarming way … did you ever get something out of somebody that they were shocked they said and maybe sorry they said on television?
HEFFNER: I don’t think sorry as much as … one of the program’s … Golden Oldies that we repeated this year was with Richard Helms, who had been head of the CIA …
HEFFNER: And Fay Vincent … during my Hollywood years … I had met Fay Vincent who was then the President of Columbia Pictures, a very wonderful man. Graduated from Williams and suggested to me that a good guest would be Richard Helms, the former head of the CIA. And I said, “Will he speak, will he talk about current events?” And he said, “Oh, no, no. I know what he would want to talk about. He would want to talk about having met Adolf Hitler. When he graduated from college, he went abroad as a … with some press credential and he actually got in to see Hitler and interviewed him. And he’ll want to talk about that.”
Well, indeed, I invited Richard Helms to join me here, said we’d talk about that. He talked about it for about five minutes and then suddenly he started to talk about contemporary affairs.
BAKER: Ahhh …
HEFFNER: … and the role, perhaps, of the CIA. Did he regret that? Did he want to kick himself afterwards? I doubt it. It was so spontaneous. But you know I don’t try to trap or entrap …
BAKER: Absolutely not.
HEFFNER: … my guests. And if I seem kind of sappy and overly benign it’s because I do want my guests to express, as best he or she can, what his fundamental thinking is. And that’s the purpose of The Open Mind.
I no longer … in a sense, Bill, the title isn’t right any longer. When I began it in ’56 television was still young enough and new enough that people didn’t fully realize its power. And I would have two or three guests on the program and you could see on the program man or woman thinking. A question would be asked and people weren’t thinking about the audience so much, they were thinking about people sitting next to them and if I had a good director and I usually did … you’d see on someone’s face … hmmm, that’s interesting what Joe is saying and what Moe just said. And you’d see people grow and change their minds. Their minds were open.
And then as the years went on, and people began to realize what great power you have in reaching audiences of different sizes, mine is small … Charlie Rose’s is large, etc. It’s important to get your point of view over and never mind this business so much of listening to others or having an open mind. And I cam to the conclusion, let’s recognize that that’s happening. And my guests would be here, invited, not so much to listen to each other, but to best express their own points of view and I’ll have the open mind.
HEFFNER: I’ll sit here and ask the questions that are probing but are not hostile, by any means, but are designed simply to say, “More, more. Tell me more.” And I think it’s worked.
BAKER: Do you have a philosophy of the kinds of people you invite on this program. Who, who gets invited. Is there a, is there a way you explain what you’re … what this program is to outsiders who may never have seen it?
HEFFNER: Boy, that’s a good question. You know I simply, at times … you may remember the old days … the subway would have advertisements, ‘I got my job through The New York Times” …
HEFFNER: And I’ll frequently reply that way. I get so many of my guests by reading The New York Times and being provoked to … reading a book review … gee, I’d like to discuss that, I’d like to have the author here. More times than not, and I admit this openly … Daphne Doelger the Associate Producer of The Open Mind will get a call from me on Monday, or an E-mail from me on Monday, saying could you get me these books and I list six that I’ve read about in the Times, or people who figure in the news. There’s nothing magic about it.
I had once for five years done a program called “From The Editor’s Desk”, it was the Independent News Network. There it was a sort of “Face the Nation/Meet the Press” and the guests were the, the newsmakers. Here that’s not quite so true.
HEFFNER: The writers, the thinkers, the people who may want to go beyond what it is that they have written.
BAKER: You said something earlier which I have to disagree with. And that is you said that you have a small audience. Well, you don’t. I, I look at the ratings and there are a lot of people watching us right now and certainly over the years you have a massive, cumulative audience, arguably one of the biggest because you’ve been on so long in the history of the business. Do you get much response as you wander the streets and ride the subways and, letters and comments. What about our friends out there who are smart enough to enjoy and want to see a program like this.
HEFFNER: Well, we get fewer letters than in the past, but then that fits the nature of our, our society.
HEFFNER: On the street it’s true that there’ll always be someone …and I have to say to my wife, “I didn’t set it up that way.” Someone will come over a few times a week …
HEFFNER: … what pleases me is when it’s many more times a week. But people will come over and say … “I saw this show, I liked that so much.” Or, “I liked this question that you asked.” Or, “Didn’t someone have more to say than that.” And that’s rewarding. And the interesting thing, Bill, is that despite what I’ve said before, those people who come over, cross, what I’m sure are educational lines. I’ll get into a taxi cab and quite frequently a taxi driver will just call back and say, “Gee, Bill Baker was good when I watched him the other day …
BAKER: Never say that, huh.
HEFFNER: Now come on because you’ve been on the program and I watch you on Thirteen. It’s interesting the spread … I, I used to think that they’re probably people who are older to respond to my older “boy/man” comments and my guest’s. Actually that, that isn’t so true. I’ll have an awful lot of college students and high school students …
HEFFNER: … who are kind enough to comment. Now, this summer people have been stopping me and saying, “When did you grow that mustache? Because you didn’t have it when I watched you on Thirteen this week.” Or, “Your hair was so long.” Or, “You were puffier then.” Or, “You were younger then.” And I say, “That was forty years ago.”
BAKER: This experience of having done a program like this for so many years … has a … means even though you’re really the singular talent, the singular face over the years on the program, you’re often standing on so many other people’s shoulders. You mentioned you Associate Producer, but you didn’t mention, too, the philanthropy of others who have helped make this show possible over fifty years. Want to talk a little about philanthropy and, and selfless giving that has made public television and this particular program what it is.
HEFFNER: There’s no question, Bill, I’m enormously grateful … I mean once it came on public broadcasting … someone like Roz Walters … well …
BAKER: She’s the best.
HEFFNER: … there’s no one like Roz Walter.
BAKER: Nobody like her.
HEFFNER: So that … but it goes without saying that Roz who has underwritten, generously, so many fine programs; has been so helpful to me and others. Commercial people … Mutual of America has been a giant support for us. Many other individuals. The Bluestein Family Foundation, Teachers College, these are people who receive nothing other than the pleasure of being identified with important ideas reaching more and more people. And I’m enormously grateful to them as I know you are for the support that you get.
BAKER: It gives you such a great feeling to know that there are such people. Such selfless, interested involved people often with terrific judgment and taste like Roz and others. Yes, indeed, it does.
TAPE GETS FLIPPED AT THIS POINT … I WON’T KNOW WHAT BEEN MISSED UNTIL WE HAVE THE VIDEOTAPE. SECOND SIDE STARTS AT:
BAKER: What about government, why don’t you. Do you have any comments on the government?
HEFFNER: Yeah, I mean I, I remember having a fellow by the name of Bill Baker on this program a few times and at times when things looked pretty darned grim in terms of what funds were going to be allocated. I’m under the impression that we are once again … I mean you have to tell me what’s, what’s happened, but I’m under the impression that things are tough once again.
BAKER: They are. And it keeps coming back and the kind of cycle, the period of the waves hitting us gets shorter and shorter. So, yeah, it is tough. The only thing that gives me faith that the government funding will keep going is that our wonderful friends out there in the audience … speaking of being selfless, go out on their own and call their Congressmen and Senators and push for public broadcasting. And that has worked every time. But the moment our audience stops, that’s the moment this channel becomes something else, and there’s no more Open Mind or NewsHour or program like Sesame Street, etc.
HEFFNER: What about that audience. Does it? Is it growing in its awareness of the part it must play?
BAKER: I don’t know, I mean what we worry about what we say, kind of in professional circles inside of public television is, we worry about viewer fatigue. These wonderful folks have been so generous to us and we keep coming back and saying, “Will you help again, will you make that phone call, will you give us the $50?” So we try to be as gentle as we possibly can.
But we also … many of the acts, especially the acts of calling the government are … and Senators and Congressmen, etc. … are all pretty much individually motivated; motivated by the viewer him or herself, so that’s … that seems to be … we really genuinely do seem to be appreciated and I, like you, when I go on the subways or walk down the street see it from people of all walks of life. Often commenting on programs like this …these are the kinds of shows and the Great Performances, Charlie Rose, your program, Religion and Ethics, News Weekly. These are the programs that people really talk about.
Let’s talk about you. You casually mentioned a part of your career … now you … we, we were back fifty years ago … when you started the program, you worked at NBC, you were a teacher, worked at NBC, you’ve been teaching, we know that … came over to public television … you were the first General Manager of Channel 13, so I’m now, the sixth or seventh General Manager standing on your shoulders. How long were you at Thirteen as General Manger and then where did you go from there?
HEFFNER: Very, very briefly. First man in … first man out. It’s a …
BAKER: Oh, you did a good job, you got it going. Did you put Edward R. Murrow on the air, because Murrow was the first face on Channel Thirteen …
BAKER: … when it was a public TV station. Were you the guy that said, “Ed, would you go and do this?” You did?
HEFFNER: Absolutely. That first night …
BAKER: You were the man! Good for you.
HEFFNER: … don’t forget, we were on strike then.
BAKER: Oh, that’s right. Yes.
HEFFNER: Early that morning our Chief Engineer Ed Hamilton had called me from the Empire State Building to say, “Tonight we may not go on the air because we’re on strike.” But we went on the air and the … it was my union … the performers union …
HEFFNER: … AFTRA …
HEFFNER: … that had started the strike. So we went on that first night and Ed Murrow was our host. I remember greeting …
BAKER: He crossed the picket line?
HEFFNER: He cross the picket line. So did a good many people. And Ed wasn’t given to crossing picket lines. You remember his politics were very Liberal. But what struck me most was that … I know Thirteen shows that segment of Ed Murrow saying what to expect from this station …
HEFFNER: … and its just wonderful. But few people realize what pain he was in. He came to the door, crossed the picket line, limping and he didn’t know … I dare say no one knew at that time that the cancer that ultimately killed him was coursing through his body.
HEFFNER: And he wouldn’t take a pain killer because he was going to act as our host and he simply would not do that before he was going on the air. And, well, you know from seeing the kinescope, how wonderful he was.
We went on the air and I made the announcement that I didn’t want anyone to be hurt, what they saw on the air was what we promised the people of New York and we went off the air until the strike was settled. And then came back on.
HEFFNER: Those were quite some days.
BAKER: Well, thank you for what you did. And, every time I see the Edward R. Murrow on Channel Thirteen that we use it, I’ll be thinking of you and looking at it in an entirely different way, as we know our viewers will.
You had a career in Hollywood. You left Channel Thirteen, did you go to Hollywood from Thirteen? Walk us through that, if you will.
HEFFNER: When I unceremoniously was left … pushed out the door at Thirteen …
BAKER: I had nothing to do with it.
HEFFNER: You had nothing to do with it.
BAKER: Even though I wanted your job … nothing to do with …(laughter) … I was only 18 at the time.
HEFFNER: I, I always thought it was the greatest job in the world that you have now.
BAKER: It is. It is. It is.
HEFFNER: I mean I wasn’t President, you’re President. I was the General Manager, I put it on the air, with the help of so many wonderful people, some of whom are gone now. At any rate, after I was out, I became a consultant, in communications … the time was ripe for that and I set up my own little company and did the program. And then one day I was giving a paper on such an esoteric subject as Soviet attitudes toward direct satellite to home broadcasting …
HEFFNER: … Frank Stanton, the great Frank Stanton, who had been my boss at one time … was asked by the State Department to give this paper and he was too busy and he asked Dick Salant to do it, and Dick was too busy and finally it got down the ladder to me and I went and called home at the end of the seminar to ask my wife how things were and she said … well, I think she said that the coach of the football team at Fieldston had fired the team because someone was caught smoking dope and he was putting in the Junior Varsity, on which our younger son played, the next day against Riverdale … a school of great strength, big players, and what should she do? And I said, “Locate the nearest emergency room.”
HEFFNER: And be there to take him.
BAKER: Ahhh …
HEFFNER: The other thing was that a man by the name of Jack Valenti had called …
HEFFNER: … to ask me to call him. And Bill I thought, well Valenti was on the CPB Board, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Board, at that time. And I thought, “Finally, ten years later, they’ve recognized that I should be back in public television.” And, no, Jack wanted me to become the Chairman of the film rating system in Hollywood, and after telling him, “No, Mr. Valenti, my mother didn’t raise me to count nipples” because that’s what I thought about the rating system. I went out at his importuning, saw what the Board did, thought I could do it perhaps a little better, or help make it a little better and put less emphasis on a bad word here or a nipple there and more on violence. And said to Jack, “Okay”, eventually I said to him, “Yes I’ll do it, I’ll do it for a year.” And the year became 20 years …
HEFFNER: From 1974 to 1994, but I commuted. I lived here in New York. I taught at Rutgers, I did The Open Mind and I would fly out on Tuesday to LA and come back Thursday. At the beginning.
Later on when videocassettes were available, I didn’t have to go out there so often. But it was a fascinating, fascinating time.
BAKER: Do you think this rating … movie ratings have had a significant impact on, on our society or our culture, or improved it in any way?
HEFFNER: Bill, will you forgive me if I say that perhaps it prevented it from being even worse. Which is a strange thing to say. I think “yes” it had some impact. But that essentially a voluntary system in an open society in which ultimately one says “anything goes as long as the public permits it to” … anything then goes. And the standards … I’ll put it this way … the standards constantly are eroded … appropriately so. Because the system is based upon what most parents will accept as the ratings. Not what you and I, as parents, or grandparents might say … this is what we want children to have and no more … parents would accommodate to the level of violence, unfortunately.
HEFFNER: and the level of language. And the level of sexuality. Maybe the sexuality less than anything else. But, as they tolerated more, the rating system says most parents will consider this film a PG-13, whatever that means. Or an R. and that’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to rate them as they think most people … but the tolerance is, is getting greater and greater for this garbage.
BAKER: So maybe there’s going to be a point where the ratings are useless because the tolerance is so high.
HEFFNER: Well, they’ll still have some use, but they certainly have not prevented the level in terms of the thing I’m most concerned about … violence …
HEFFNER: … from getting higher and higher and higher in the media. That is the price we pay for voluntarism. And I left Hollywood less convinced that we can be any longer such a de-regulated nation. Regulation, after all, was so much a part of the best part of American political life. From the end of the 19th century on … we did our best when we recognized the need for some intervention on the part of government.
HEFFNER: We began to deregulate back in the 1980s and we haven’t stopped yet. And I think that’s why the lid Is off … anything goes … as long as its rated in the movies. And anything goes as long as parents don’t make incredible demands upon the producers and the distributors.
BAKER: Well, I would agree with everything you’ve said and I think that … I think that what we see on American television today is a product of … just television, forget the movies. Television is a product of that unregulated, no demands on the media other than demands from shareholders and owners to make money. And that’s what you see.
HEFFNER: You know, when I got to Hollywood, I remember calling Elaine, my wife, late one evening having seen a whole slew of … I thought … garbage. And I said, you know it’s so strange out here, there’s less money involved in Hollywood than there was in New York in broadcasting, where I’d been for so many years and yet I could shake a hand in the world of television and know that that handshake was going to be respected. And that in Hollywood I found that the opposite was true. And I was trying to figure out why, how do you account for that? And then I realized that broadcasting had been regulated from the very beginning.
HEFFNER: And Hollywood never had.
BAKER: Never. No.
HEFFNER: And the broadcasters were always … well, you know … your years as head of Westinghouse. You must have been concerned with the fact that there were, was a real FCC at the time. Now we don’t have anything such except perhaps if someone says a word and someone is going to be fined if there is a complaint about that word. It’s kind of upside down.
BAKER: It seems, it seems like the kind of regulation … what little regulation is left, is regulation in the wrong area. You know these seven bad words or some sexual thing. Not the more important things about putting meaningful content on television; public affairs for, for example.
Family … you mentioned families in America. You have quite a family, tell us about your significant other …
HEFFNER: Well …
BAKER: … your wife, your children.
HEFFNER: My wife, Elaine, we will in the summer of 2006 be married 56 years.
HEFFNER: We have two sons. Daniel a filmmaker lives in Los Angeles. Andrew an Assistant District Attorney here in Manhattan. Dan has two sons; Andy has a son and a very young daughter. We don’t see our grandchildren enough, of course, but we do see them. Alexander, the oldest one is the, is the political one in the family, he goes to Andover … has his own weekly broadcasting program. He asked me when he started the radio program if he could call it The Open Mind and I said, “Sure you can and I’ll sue you.”
HEFFNER: He calls it the Progressive Mind and I’ve not yet been able to convince him that there’s a difference between a progressive mind which is a political concept and an open mind. We’re … I guess now that our grandchildren are getting older, we perhaps wish we had had more children so that we could have more grandchildren.
Elaine is a psychiatric social worker, a child therapist, a person of enormous ability. She’s the one who can call herself “doctor”, she earned her doctorate. I got mine through the honorary process. That’s it. Like everybody else we watch television on occasions, we go to the movies, we try to read as much as we can, we have a little house … not as impressive as your lighthouse, but a little house on a lake an hour away from New York.
BAKER: Who’s your toughest critic. Does, does Elaine …
HEFFNER: You know who that is …it’s my wife.
BAKER: Yes. Exactly.
HEFFNER: Who else would it be? My wife and Daphne Doelger, the Associate Producer.
HEFFNER: The two real critics in my life. But I’ve been, I’ve been blessed. I’ve been very fortunate in terms of my family, in terms of my associates, in terms of my professional life. Bill, you must feel sometimes the way I do. Could it be that I’m allowed to do these wonderful things? And other people have to struggle through on things that must bore them silly?
BAKER: It’s a real privilege to have … to do this kind of work. Especially in this venue, public television. It’s one that I think sometimes even our own colleagues don’t appreciate how, how special this experience is and how grateful we are to our viewers for giving us that possibility. And we hope we deliver back.
HEFFNER: You do. Because I watch. I mean, I don’t mean because I watch … I mean when I watch there’s a Jewish expression, I kvell, I, I feel so good and so proud that I had something to do … though many, many decades …
BAKER: A lot to do.
HEFFNER: … ago, but a long time ago, with what has become this rather glorious affair. We were saying before, before we went on the air, the artistic work, the creative work done at Channel Thirteen, I think superior to anything on the air. And I’m talking about the real art work I watch and I think of “how did they think of that?”
BAKER: There are some amazing people out there. It’s tragic that we don’t have more resources to let some of these geniuses we have working with us really take the lid off and go. But, you know, it’s …everything, unfortunately, is, is economic pressure, even in this … even in this blessed public television world.
What’s next for you, Dick? What’s … I mean, fifty years of programs. We’re counting on you going for the next half century …
HEFFNER: Right. (Laughter)
BAKER: … deep into it, as deep as you possibly can go. Any … who do you, who do you want to talk to … who’s on this list that you’re generating in your mind that you want to talk to over the next decade or so?
HEFFNER: Oh, there’s a whole page full of, of people. But I think that the thing I’m most interested in right now is being able to fulfill the promise that the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Revson Foundation made or gave when they started a pilot project which is an Online Digital Archive of The Open Mind.
BAKER: Oh, really.
HEFFNER: And it’s set now … theopenmind.tv … but the …
HEFFNER: Right. Go to it and you can see about, oh, 70 something programs … you can see …
BAKER: Video streamed … 70 shows on the web.
HEFFNER: And they’re wonderful. But what we’re trying to do now is raise the funds and they’re substantial, what’s needed to put 1,000 more Open Minds on this. And I, I want this Archive to be available. We’re cooperating with … in this with Teachers College and Columbia so that a hundred years from now, two hundred years from now … or now any place in the world, if you want to see Martin Luther King …
HEFFNER: You can go and see that wonderful program with Dr. King. You want to see Max Lerner, Norman Cousins, Norman Mailer, you can go to the Archive and see these programs done over the past fifty years. Now that’s a great teaching device. And that’s what I’m devoting myself to now. And then, of course, a revision … it will be the eighth revised edition of my A Documentary History of the United States, which I put out in 1952.
HEFFNER: It then cost, if I remember correctly, 35 cents. As a paperback. Now it costs considerably more. And there … I suppose there are a couple of other things … but as you get older … and I’ve gotten older, I’m not a kid like you … I suppose you’re happy to be able to wake up in the morning and know you’re still there and to be able to do these things. I’m enormously grateful to you … indeed, for keeping The Open Mind on Channel 13. It’s … it’s been a wonderful place to be.
BAKER: Dick, it’s the other way around. You know we’re privileged to have The Open Mind on Channel Thirteen. You know, you might think sometimes this fifty year old program’s an anachronism … you’re doing it pretty much the same way you did, you know, 49 years ago. But in some ways that’s what makes it great. It’s now truly, truly unique. It’s a treasure; it’s a … there just nothing quite like this kind of television show. Look at this hour … you and I are spending here for this special program. There’s just not that privilege on this compressed, massive media world we’re in to, kind of open it up and, and reflect and be peaceful and calm and reflective. And in that reflectivity is also nuance and understanding of …
HEFFNER: I hope you’re …
BAKER: … it’s really special.
HEFFNER: I hope you’re right and it reminds me, talking before the program. The one thing, when Channel Thirteen began and I don’t know if many people realize this … we had thought of being sort of being ungraded, unlimited … never having an end to a program except as the program demanded and end. This is it, this is the end of it. And we wanted not to be limited by boxes in TV Guide or The New York Times, 10 o’clock this begins … at 11 o’clock that program begins. And doggone it, my favorite newspaper, The New York Times wouldn’t permit us to do it because they wouldn’t list it; they wouldn’t list something … we were willing to record a program and if it went on an hour and 23 minutes; if it went on 12 minutes, do that. And The Times wouldn’t list those “out of the box”, literally, out of the box times. Maybe that’s something we can, you can figure out for the future of Thirteen.
BAKER: Well, there’s a lot … hopefully a lot of future left in Thirteen and a lot of future left in you and this program. I want to lean on you for kind of a last question or two … and that is … the professor … the professor of media. We’ve talked a lot about how this program has stayed the same, but how the media world, both movies and television, radio have radically changed. Where do you think it’s all going? Do you have any, any predictions?
BAKER: In one minute.
HEFFNER: I’m not sanguine about it. When you’ve been here and we’ve talked about that question because of your wonderful book on the media. When Bill Moyers has been here as my guest, the same thing is true. I … I’m not very hopeful, Bill. As long as were main essentially commercial, as long as the bottom line is always and exclusively the bottom line, I don’t see the possibility that we can make out of this wonderful, wonderful red light in camera, what it should have been made into a long, long time ago.
BAKER: Well, you have contributed a great deal. You personally, Dick Heffner, this program … The Open Mind. Thank you for giving me the privilege of sitting in your usual seat.
HEFFNER: Thank you, Bill.
BAKER: And thanks to you, too, in the audience. I’m Bill Baker the Chief Executive of Channel 13 and WLIW21.
I hope you’ll watch The Open Mind on this station each week and for many more years to come.
Meanwhile, as our old friend used to say, really Dick’s old friend, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.