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Real News Day

Alexander Heffner speaks at the 2018-2019 Anvil of Freedom Award LectureOn Monday, October 1 and Tuesday, October 2, the Ed and Charlotte Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media and the Department of Media, Film and Journalism Studies welcomed Alexander Heffner to campus for the 26th anniversary Anvil of Freedom lecture. Heffner, who is an author, public speaker, and host of PBS's "The Open Mind," is touring the country promoting the latest edition of his book, A Documentary History of the United States.

The official Estlow Center Anvil of Freedom Award Lecture was presented on Monday, October 1 on the topic of "Civil Discourse in an Uncivil Age: the Quest for a Post-Partisan Citizenship." Heffner spoke to over 150 students, faculty, staff, and alumni on the importance of civility and open mindedness during a time of particular polarization between political parties, especially among journalists. Political parties have always been polarized to a certain extent, he said, but in recent years "conditions of instability have been exacerbated." He broke down the particular threat to journalism into the three most pressing instabilities: bigotry, obstructionism, and dysfunction. All three are easy traps to fall into, but they lead to clickbait and fake news and further divide the people. He specifically called out the comments sections of online news articles, saying that they facilitate a non-authentic news experience, populated as they are with irrelevant and incendiary commentary rather than civil discussion. Heffner advised journalists and commentators to be constructive and to facilitate actual, open discussions. He said to understand "instances of both old and new media," asking what their goals and their values are. He ended his talk with a call for a higher level of "news literacy" across the board before opening the floor to questions from the audience. The event concluded with a small reception at which copies of Heffner's A Documentary History of the United States were available to purchase and which Heffner was happy to sign.

Students listen to Alexander Heffner speak at the 2018-2019 Estlow Anvil of Freedom lecture.Alexander Heffner spoke again to a primarily student audience from MFJS's Politics and Media and the Department of Sociology's Sociology of Childhood courses on Tuesday, October 2. MFJS Department Chair Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark opened the session by having the students discuss their Twitter usage in small groups, particularly as it applied to news consumption and how young people in general became involved with the news. Following a short discussion on the same topic with the whole class, Dr. Clark welcomed Heffner who broadened the conversation into the topic of "The Twitter Effect: Seeing Donald Trump's Tweets in Action." He described Twitter's immediacy and the impact this has as a new platform for politics and government, where tweets are shared quickly even if they're erroneous, and there is little accountability for facts. Referencing back to his lecture the day before, Heffner said that social media has "exacerbated the instability" in government and civic engagement, giving people and organizations and foreign powers the ability to make money through the spread of mis- and dis-information. He told students, however, that the "failure of these organizations [to fact-check what is posted] should not dissuade you from using these valuable resources" to engage in fact-checking for themselves. Social media is still an incredible tool, he noted: students should simply be wary about who they follow so that they understand what they're participating in and are able to ground their own usage in their own values. Following his lecture he again opened up the discussion to a long and conversational question and answer session, where students asked several questions related to the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and the potential for social media to impact the number of young people voting in the next election.

Alexander Heffner is host of "The Open Mind" on PBS. He has covered American politics, civic life, and Millennials since the 2008 presidential campaign. His work has been profiled in The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Des Moines Register, Christian Science Monitor, Variety, Medium, and on NBC News, MSNBC, C-SPAN, NPR CNN, BBC, and ABC, among other media outlets. His writing has appeared in Time, USA TODAY, Daily Beast, Reuters, RealClearPolitics, NYT's Room for Debate, The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and Philadelphia Inquirer, among other publications. He is coauther of A Documentary History of the United States (Penguin, 2018), which was first published in 1952 by Heffner's grandfather, Richard Heffner, the original host of "The Open Mind."