Why Not Call It 'Crossfire'?

The hosts of CNN's new show should watch a few tapes

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Why can't CNN President Jonathan Klein have the guts just to admit he was wrong and call his new show "Crossfire"? Or at least to apologize to all the hard-working CNN employees working on Crossfire whom he insulted as he kicked them out the door? (Not me. By the time Klein killed Crossfire, I was long gone, out in Seattle starting Slate.) Crossfire, if you never saw it, was a CNN interview show with two "hosts," a conservative and a liberal, and two or three "guests," from the usual pool of camera-ready politicians. When I was involved (though not necessarily for that reason) it was the top show on the network many evenings, with an audience larger than Larry King himself and far larger than anything CNN attracts today.

But then, one fateful evening, Jon Stewart came on to push a humor book, and blindsided the hosts (at that time Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson) by going all gooey and high-minded, and declaring that Crossfire was "hurting America" with its strident argumentation. Klein, opining that audiences wanted information, not opinion, not only took Crossfire and several other CNN discussion shows off the air, but declared that he "wholeheartedly agreed" with Jon Stewart that his own subordinates were hurting their country.

Klein's principled opposition to opinion lasted just a few months. Soon enough, Anderson Cooper was sobbing all over his black t-shirt in New Orleans and Lou Dobbs had completed his remarkable transition from corporate shill to snarling, pitchfork-bearing populist. And now this. Two hosts, one liberal and one conservative, newsmaker guests, a "spirited" discussion of the issues of the day. But oh no, not Crossfire. Heaven forfend!

And the difference? This show will be "organic," not "artificial," explained conservative host Kathleen Parker, a Washington Post columnist, to the Huffington Post. The liberal host, Eliot Spitzer, last seen hiking the Appalachian trail with fellow governor Mark Sanford, amplified: "Big issues, little issues, coming at it from different perspective, same perspective, agree, disagree.... Thoughtful, smart, funny, not boring, not predictable." On Crossfire, of course, it never occurred to us to try to be thoughtful or smart or any of that pansy stuff. We were just a "simple left vs. right partisan shouting match." But in the Huffington Post piece, Parker contradicted Spitzer on the partisanship point, saying that she and Spitzer "bring completely different perspectives...which is what this country is all about." Maybe they can make this their first topic of discussion.

As an example of the excitement ahead, Spitzer and Parker said that if they were on the air right now, they would have General McChrystal as their guest. (TV bookers all over Washington are snorting, "Right. And if it was Christmas they'd have Jesus Christ. He'd have nothing better to do either.") Then some sample dialogue.

Parker: My immediate reaction is you don't ever disrespect the commander-in-chief....

Spitzer: I agree entirely with that....

You see? Not Crossfire.

But even though I got tired of it, Crossfire was always more than a "partisan shouting match." It held politicians' feet to the fire better than any other show on TV (including the sainted Tim Russert's Meet the Press). There was very little of that excruciating we-may-disagree-but-we're-all really-bigshots-together-here-in-DC stuff. And there was far less shouting than people think they remember. Best of luck to Parker and Spitzer. They--and Klein-- should watch a few Crossfire tapes. My mother, when she died last year, had an almost-complete set. She didn't think we were hurting America.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.