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‘Uncommon Knowledge’

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The story behind the Hoover Institution’s web and television series

(JING RAN/The Stanford Daily)

In recent years, the Hoover Institution has been known for its policy research and the fame of its fellows outside the Farm. But the think tank has also tried its hand at entertainment: Hoover has been producing its own show, entitled “Uncommon Knowledge,” for over a decade.

The series, hosted by Hoover research fellow Peter Robinson M.B.A. ’90, is an outlet for political leaders, scholars and journalists to share their views with the world. While the show has been in the form of webcasts since 2006, it ran as a television series from 1997 to 2005.

Its guests have included a host of famous figures, including Paul Krugman, Newt Gingrich, Christopher Hitchens, Henry Kissinger, John McCain and Rupert Murdoch, along with Hoover fellows such as Condoleezza Rice and George Shultz.

According to executive producer William Free, Stanford was an ideal place for the show to ground itself.

“The Hoover Institution was looking for ways to expand dialogue about important policy issues and this was one way to do it,” he said. “Stanford is a center for ideas and people coming together to discuss those ideas.”

“‘Uncommon Knowledge’ takes fascinating, accomplished guests, then sits them down with me to talk about the issues of the day,” Robinson wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “Unhurried, civil, thoughtful and informed conversation – that’s what we produce. And there isn’t all that much of it around these days.”

Robinson himself has authored three books and spent six years in the White House, from 1982 to 1983 as chief speechwriter to then Vice President George H.W. Bush and from 1983 to 1988 as special assistant and speechwriter to then President Ronald Reagan. Robinson also spent a year with Fox Television and another with the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C.

Aside from host Robinson, the show’s staff consists of Free, assistant producer and research assistant Diane Ellis and Robinson’s assistant, Nicole Reed. According to Robinson, the show shoots nearly all of its episodes on campus in the studio across from Escondido Village.

“We’re constantly thinking about Hoover fellows and Stanford faculty who would be able to comment on public policy issues that are in the news,” Robinson said. “We also pay a lot of attention to visiting authors, speakers and political figures. This university is a lot like Manhattan – sooner or later more or less every person of note in the country is bound to turn up.”

“Uncommon Knowledge” sprouted from the minds of Hoover Institution Director John Raisian and current series producer Free, and Robinson became the face of the show. The producers made the switch from TV to webcast in 2006 to take advantage of Internet media, according to Robinson.

“Viewers could watch it when and as they wanted,” Robinson said. “Different websites could link to different shows – all kinds of legal blogs linked to my interview with Justice Scalia, for example, whereas cultural websites linked to the show with Tom Wolfe.”

In addition, the new medium resulted in more feedback.

“We started getting a lot more e-mail,” he said. “They comment. They talk back. We just loved that.”

Free said the show’s popularity is continuing to grow, and he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of bringing the series back on television.

According to Robinson, sitting down and conversing with political, scholarly and journalistic greats helped him see his guests through a more personal lens, as with one of Robinson’s personal heroes Milton Friedman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics.

“It’s strictly true, I think, that [Friedman] possessed one of the dozen or so finest and most consequential minds that the twentieth century produced, yet he could explain any concept in language a layman could grasp,” Robinson said.

“More than that, Milton actually felt a democratic duty to make his ideas accessible, utterly without airs of any kind. He wanted to persuade his fellow Americans of his ideas because he wanted his country to flourish,” he added.

To Robinson, the episode demonstrated the worth of bringing large figures to the small screen.

“This fundamental humility – and you can see it in the interviews on “Uncommon Knowledge,” because you can see him exercising such patience with me – in a way, I found almost more impressive than his Nobel Prize.”