A Conversation with Dana Wolfe – Executive Producer of Intelligence Squared U.S.

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

The American media has come a long way since the days when the nation used to sit nightly at the knee of Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley to hear the news. Those rigorous and nicotine stained newsmen of indisputable character from the days of the three channel universe are long gone, replaced by countless news networks, newspapers, blogs and podcasts, each offering breaking stories and opinion, often in soundbite form.

In this multi-channel world where it is tempting simply to flick to the news network which supports your own political beliefs, it is possible to exist without ever hearing your own point of view questioned, your preconceptions challenged and your misconceptions corrected. That is where Intelligence Squared U.S. comes in, the American incarnation of the highly successful Oxford style debate series from the UK. The series, brought to the States by Robert Rosenkranz the CEO of Delphi Financial Group and launched in 2006, provides 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, bringing leading figures and intellectuals on both sides of an issue together, each offering their expert arguments to an audience.

Dana Wolfe, the executive producer of Intelligence Squared U.S. and a former Emmy winning producer of the ABC news program Nightline, talks to me about the aims of Intelligence Squared U.S. and the current state of civil discourse in the United States.

What were the circumstances behind your involvement with Intelligence Squared U.S and what attracted you to the organisation?  

Somebody heard that Robert Rosenkranz had purchased the licensing rights for Intelligence Squared in the United States, and mentioned he was looking for somebody to run it. I say that Bob and I gave birth to IQ2US, we really started it from nothing, but of course, Intelligence Squared in London was an excellent backbone, which already had a great reputation. So when we brought it to this side of the pond, which does not have a history in Oxford style formative debate, we realized there was a real need for IQ2US, American culture had been reduced down to a sound-bite in many cases, and we felt that we wanted to be able to offer two sides on any given issue to an audience, with time to allow people to digest both sides of those issues. We know that in the 21st century people’s attention spans have become much shorter, but we wanted to be able to offer the opportunity to an audience to come and sit in a comfortable theatre chair and see a formidable debate, featuring an in-depth discussion of issues.

What kind of contribution does IQ2US makes to today’s American media landscape?

We offer people the depth of an issue and both sides of an issue, something people may not get in their everyday lives from the websites they visit, the television they watch, the cable stations they flick in between and the social media they get. We are not a ten second sound-bite. There are some very important interview programmes within the American media landscape such as the Charlie Rose show for example, but that  just offers one-on-one interviews without an audience present. There are some great reporters and chat show hosts too who push back against the person they are interviewing, but in our case a speaker is listening to their opponent, they are reacting to their opponent and they are trying to sway an audience’s point of view, so there are stakes in what we do, and people come to participate in our debates because they understand those stakes. We ask our audience to put aside their point of view when they walk in the door, and we ask them to really think about team A or team B’s performance. So we are both sides of an issue, in an unabbreviated format, which I think makes us unusual in the current American media landscape.

So no other organisation runs a similar thing at all in the US at the moment?

Sure, different places do debate from time to time, but we are the only consistent organisation in America right now where the only thing we do is debate. We do ten to twelve debates a year, normally ten or eleven of them are in New York and we’ve gone on the road twice. We also have a very popular pod-cast. In fact Forbes Magazine put us in a list of five podcasts that will change the way you think, we were in the same category as the Harvard Business Review, TED and The New Yorker. Well that’s company I want to keep!

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

How is the debate organised, what are the sections of the evening?

There are three portions of the evening, there are opening uninterrupted remarks from each debater, followed by the intra panel discussion, were the panel talk between themselves and about what they have just opened their remarks with. This is followed by a moderated Q&A and a final summation to win the audience to their respective sides.

And how does a typical audience engage with the Intelligence Squared U.S. format?

People are paying money to buy a ticket to come and see this, they are engaged, and most of the time we don’t have enough space in our format to take all the questions. The audience feels included, they vote electronically twice, they can ask questions and many of the debaters attend pre-debate receptions and the audience rubs shoulders with people they wouldn’t normally be able to talk to. That’s a whole experience that you don’t get out of a ten second sound-bite. And people react in the audience; they don’t just sit there quietly.

What about the topics of the debates, how do you decide what issues to include in a debate cycle? They are generally hot-button issues, are these choices influenced by the news-cycle?

We try to see where the country is trending, where current events are going on, what there is an appetite for. We have many times broken down a series of five debates roughly into two foreign policy themed debates, two on domestic policy and one on social trends. They are serious but at the same time you want the whole evening to be entertaining, but you also want an audience to come away having learnt something.

Dana Wolfe and ABC News correspondent John Donvan. Samuel LaHoz/Intelligence Squared U.S.

Which topics have engaged your audiences the most, looking back?

With us being based in New York City anything Middle Eastern related, Israeli/Palestinian foreign policy. In the past two years because of the decline of the economy we’ve done a number of debates on domestic policy, specifically on the economy and those have been quite engaging. And then we also do hot button social issues like “Organic food is marketing hype” or “Men are finished.” An issue like that is a fun one but it is also very serious, more women are going to undergraduate school now, there are more women going to grad school, there are more women entering the work force. Those types of issues you can have fun with, but it’s still a serious topic.

Do the social issues excite people more than the political ones?

Yes, we’re doing a debate, and this was decided before the Penn State fiasco (the Pennsylvania child sex abuse scandal which saw the conviction of a football coach for sexual assault), titled “Ban college football,” and the reason we’re doing it is twofold – sports and specifically American football has huge injury and concussion problems at the moment, and then there are corruption and money making issues surrounding the sport in the States. The football players aren’t making any money, but all the corporations and colleges are making billions and billions of dollars.

What is the state of civil discourse in the United States today?

I don’t think America’s civil discourse is in a very good place right now. It’s tough during an election year, the campaigns have already gone negative and we have unusual circumstances in that you have a failing economy in the United States and worldwide, with a president who has been in office for four years with this situation, and people are looking not only to hear their own point of view, but to hear it in an angry way, because they are angry and they don’t know where else to go. We seem to have found a niche in society which allows people to go somewhere to let off that steam in a civil way, and I don’t think there are many places out there where you can watch a debate and not see it descend into a screaming match.

Chris Vultaggio/Intelligence Squared U.S.

How has the American media changed and can IQ2US attempt to turn the tables on the current “sound-bite” culture in the US?

I would hope so, we are a small non-for profit organisation that does the best we can. I would love to be able to take Intelligence Squared US on the road more often, to different cities to expose more people to what we do in person. We move at a much faster pace in society today and the media has had to respond, look at Nightline, in the 1990s we used to produce a half hour of daily television five nights a week on one topic, today it’s three or four topics in that same half an hour. So everything has changed, it’s for other people to determine whether that is for the better or not.

Of the IQ2US debates you have witnessed so far, which ones have you found to be the most memorable?

We just did a debate on whether the United Nations should recognise a Palestinian State and that was provocative. I’ve been dealing with the Israelis and the Palestinians for twenty five years and I can tell you nothing has changed with that situation. We did a debate on Hamas early on in IQ2US’s history, maybe it was in the first ten debates. Hamas is democratically elected, but still a terrorist organisation. The audience was very interesting and one panellist commented from the podium, “I’m so pleased that this is such a diverse audience,” meaning it just wasn’t a bunch of liberal New Yorkers sitting there. Instead you had all walks of life, you had Arabs, you had Palestinians, you had black hat Hasidic Jews, you had the liberal New York Jewish population represented, so it was a real mix, and they were all sitting there really listening. And a few of these people came out after the debate and said to us things like “even though I’m very pro-Israel and think Hamas is a terrorist organisation, that pro Hamas side in the debate, well, I’ve never heard arguments like that!” This was interesting to me, we did our job then, they didn’t have to agree with it, but they heard a different point of view. So that really sticks out in my mind fifty seven debates later.

Robert Rosenkranz. Chris Vultaggio/Intelligence Squared U.S.

You mention the “liberal Jewish New York population” does New York offer a disproportionate amount of liberal minded audiences?

No, it’s a real mix, we do a significant amount of outreach, so if we are doing something on a particular topic that we know is going to attract one set of individuals we do outreach to the other set to let them know we’re doing this issue and then they will come. Our audiences are quite balanced, however on occasion we do have a more left leaning audience. On occasion do we have a more right leaning audience? Yes! But not regularly.

Which guests have affected the audience the most? You’ve had people like the late Christopher Hitchens as a guest in the past for example.

The people who have the most influence over audiences are the guests who have good oratory skills, people who speak spontaneously and extemporaneously and don’t read from notes and people who use humour. I always say American’s don’t naturally have the debate gene built in as the British do, it’s not taught in school here unless you are a member of a debate club. In terms of getting guests, we go for the players, we go for people who are not politicians, they have their own platform.

You never use politicians?

I wouldn’t use the word “never”, we’ve had two current politicians, one a mayor of San Antonio and Bobby Shriver, a Kennedy, who is a serving member of the Santa Monica City Council, but they were for very specific reasons. Normally our feeling is that politicians have their own platform. We have former politicians, but we tend to look for the most thought out A-list person on any given topic and ask them to engage. Some will engage, some won’t.

Robert Rosenkranz. Samuel LaHoz/Intelligence Squared U.S.

Does Inteligence Squared U.S. influence American decision makers in government?

We did a debate in Washington DC on cyber security, we did a debate on Google, we’ve done debates on different foreign policy issues which, as I’ve mentioned, have made some impact. We did a debate on whether California was the first failed state and the then Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger called our office and asked if he could get a copy because he wanted to see it, and then he went on to speak about it. Now granted, his brother in law, Bobby Shriver, was one of the speakers, but we do get noticed. We get calls from Congress on a regular basis for copies of debates after people have seen a topic which has interested them.

How would you like to see Intelligence Squared US develop in the future?

We happen to be based in New York but we’re fortunate in that we’re on 220 NPR stations broadcast around the country, we are on PBS and we are live streamed on the web, so lots of people have the opportunity to tune into us. However we’d like to go to other cities, but that requires a lot of underwriting and sponsorship. We’d like to do a collage campus tour and we’d like to expand to being a weekly series instead of a monthly one, which is considered occasional in television of radio terms, and have a timeslot which people know and recognise.

More information about upcoming Intelligence Squared U.S. debates can be found here:  http://intelligencesquaredus.org/

 

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