On Friday night, PBS premiered Third Rail with OZY, a new debate show that explores hot-button issues and philosophical dilemmas of the modern age. Each half-hour episode will bring together a panel of expert and celebrity guests to discuss a single hot topic.
At the live taping of Friday’s premiere episode, it was clear from the introduction of the panelists that the audience was in for a lively debate. The night’s lineup included Roxane Gay, acclaimed writer of Bad Feminist and Hunger; Mo Rocca, humorist and journalist known for his Cooking Channel show, “My Grandmother’s Ravioli” and his role on CBS’ “Sunday Morning”; Seth Weathers, a Georgia-based political consultant and former Trump campaign director; and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a New York Times op-ed columnist and former Google data scientist.
To open the dialogue, Third Rail’s host Carlos Watson asked, “Is the truth overrated?” Despite the ambiguity of the question, each panelist had a quick and resolute reply. Roxane and Mo answered no, representing the “pro-truth” end of the spectrum, while the two Seths took the more cynical “anti-truth” approach and answered that yes, the truth is overrated (although Stephens-Davidowitz was quick to distinguish himself from his Republican counterpart by declaring, “I hate Trump”). The debate that ensued was as murky as one would expect given the abstract nature of the subject. The panel never quite arrived at a consensus on what fundamentally characterizes “truth” to begin with. But Roxane Gay lucidly stated, “There are degrees of mendacity, and… some lies matter more than others." Unsurprisingly, the discussion quickly turned political, touching on slavery in textbooks, Trump and the DACA repeal, Hillary’s emails, and Confederate statues. Despite its inconclusiveness, the conversation was engaging and thought-provoking.
Midway through the show, Malcolm Gladwell was asked to weigh in. Where the panel had struggled to wade through the grayer areas of the debate, the famed writer and journalist was eager to take a more black-and-white approach by analyzing the semantics of the discussion, saying, “I don’t know what… we mean by the word ‘lie’ and ‘truth’ in this context.” He went on to say that while “simple and deliberate misstatements of fact” are incontestably wrong and damaging, more often than not, our disagreements are the result of differences of opinion. According to Gladwell, these differences should be encouraged, as diversity of thought grants more power to individuals and the media and strengthens our society.
The Third Rail concept is new for PBS, and will likely be a successful one. The setup was intimate, with direct audience participation and feedback. Gladwell’s cherished “diversity of thought” was well-represented by the guests on this episode, and future lineups are equally promising. The questions proposed for later episodes are massive and monstrous but intriguing and very necessary (one question, for example, asks whether it is okay to have a racial preference in dating). But the show promises to provide a great weekly fix for viewers who feel limited by polarized media outlets and want to hear some authentic, cross-platform discussion.
To see the debate for yourself and to get a taste of what’s in store for PBS this Fall, watch the Third Rail premiere here.
Special thanks to Kerri