Intelligence Squared

Robert Leeming talks to US series producer Dana Wolfe about the US debate series

Arianna Huffington at podium. Left to right: David Brooks, John Donvan, Zev Chafets, and PJ O'Rourke. Credit: Chris Vultaggio
Arianna Huffington at podium. Left to right: David Brooks, John Donvan, Zev Chafets, and PJ O'Rourke. Credit: Chris Vultaggio

The 2012 presidential election will be a race like no other. President Obama and his Republican opponent are expected to inject copious funds into their respective advertising campaigns, with each party fuelled by a more powerful and aggressively partisan media than ever. Place this modern soundbite political culture and its vitriolic and uninformed debate alongside the beautifully written and high mannered nature of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom or Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers and an unflattering comparison emerges.Hamilton died in a duel with his political adversary Aaron Burr after one insulted the other in the midst of political debate, succeeded by a near-fatal dispute between Secretary of State Henry Clay and John Randolph, after one accused the other of “crucifying the constitution and cheating at cards.” American discourse, it seems, has always erred on the chilly side of civility.

Of course, today’s political and media elite are not beating a path to the Heights of Weehawken armed with pistols and a ready grievance. Instead, American cable news networks and talk radio stations – political juggernauts of opinion – are the major forums and megaphones for the American discourse. Each station has its own political slant, playing to a like-minded audience, ready and willing to be riled-up.In an attempt to push back against this current media trend, the popular and successful Intelligence Squared US debate series was launched in 2006 to provide a platform for balanced and civil debate in America. The debates, held regularly in New York City, have seen topics such as “Obesity is the government’s business,” and “Too many kids go to college,” raised for discussion, uniting leading figures and intellectuals on both sides offering their expert arguments to an audience.

“We offer two sides on any given issue, allowing people time to digest both sides of the argument” – Dana Wolfe, IQ2US Executive Producer

“Where IQ2US makes the most important contribution to today’s media landscape is that we offer two sides on any given issue, allowing people time to digest both sides of the argument,” says Dana Wolfe, the executive producer of IQ2US and a five-time Emmy award-winning journalist and former producer of ABC’s Nightline. This ‘time to digest’ element is often missing from today’s speedy, no-holds-barred news coverage and the recent changes at Nightline are indicative of the current style of media reporting.

The programme, anchored during Dana’s tenure by the respected Ted Koppel, was the American version of the BBC’s Panorama, and mirrored the in-depth and unbiased news coverage of BBC Radio 4.

“We used to produce a half hour of daily television five nights a week on one topic,” says Dana. “Look at Nightline today; it’s three or four topics in that same half an hour – we move at a much faster pace.” Nightline’s metamorphosis from meditative newscast to “dumbed down” magazine show has proved popular, with the new-look Nightline often attracting more viewers than light-hearted offerings from David Letterman and Jay Leno, which airs at the same time.The idea for IQ2US was conceived in London, inspired by the UK version IQ2. This format of organised debates caught the imagination of Robert Rosenkranz, the New York philanthropist and CEO of Delphi Financial Group, who brought the series to the US. “Without a civil discourse,” Robert says, “you fail to appreciate the opposing arguments on an issue and the facts which back those arguments up.”

Robert Rosenkranz addressing the audience onstage
Robert Rosenkranz at podium, (to his left David Brooks, offscreen Arianna Huffington, John Donvan, Zev Chafets and PJ O’Rourke). Credit: Chris Vultaggio

Robert has shown himself willing to engage with opposing viewpoints in practice himself, even those that are directly critical of his own success. During the recent Occupy Wall Street protests at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, Robert entered the fray and went to the camp to quiz the protestors on the reasons behind their actions. “Whatever you’ve got,” was the general reply.The autumn season of debates are planned around the issues likely to dominate the race for the White House, with healthcare and the economy both expected to appear on the bill. “We have unusual circumstances at the moment,” says Dana, “in that you have a failing economy in the United States and worldwide, you have a president who has been in office for four years with a struggling economy, and people are looking not only to hear their point of view, but hear it in angry way.”If people are closed off to reason and differing points of view, then Robert Rosenkranz hopes IQ2US can play a role in calming tempers as the election cycle ensues. “Debate has become extreme and overheated; people are trying to rally the extreme and that just leads to gridlock,” he says. “We offer a forum which allows people to go somewhere else to let off steam, in a civil way.”

“Stir them up and they’ll love it and come back for more, but, for heaven’s sake, don’t try to improve their minds.”

Foreign Policy is also an area, which attracts a great deal of interest, particularly when discussing the Middle East. Dana recalls an early debate concerning Hamas’ relationship with Israel, which attracted a racially and religiously diverse audience.

“You had Arabs, Palestinians, black hat Hasidic Jews, the liberal New York Jewish population and so on. It was a real mix and they were all sitting there, besides one another, really listening.”The debate was well received and Dana recalls talking to very pro-Israel audience members who had never heard pro-Hamas arguments of the kind presented before. “This was interesting to me,” she says, “we did our job then, they heard a different point of view.”As one character says to another running for office in Robert Penn Warren’s political thriller All the King’s Men, “Stir them up and they’ll love it and come back for more, but, for heaven’s sakes, don’t try to improve their minds.” In an increasingly polarised world, parts of which sometimes appear to thrive on anger whilst the media thrives on stroking rage, IQ2US will keep civil discourse in America alive through a turbulent year while preaching the need to listen, a virtue certainly worth its weight in gold.