Ramesh Ponnuru's Bloomberg View column arguing that a revived version of CNN's Crossfire could rescue the political debate on cable news has elicited opinions from many a pundit Tuesday, so we think there's only one way to settle it ...
From Washington, it's (Atlantic Wire) Crossfire! On the right, Bloomberg View Columnist Ramesh Ponnuru. On the left, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart. Tonight: Should CNN revive the political debate show Crossfire? In the crossfire, Washington Post's Ezra Klein, Daily Caller's Matt Lewis, New York's Jonathan Chait, and a smattering of other opinion journalists (no surprise, given the subject of debate: a forum for opinion journalism.)
We'll begin with Ponnuru, who lays out his argument for bringing back a Crossfire closer to the format in the early 1990s when Michael Kinsley and Pat Buchanan hosted. Ponnuru writes:
There were two guests, usually politicians or public-policy experts on each side of the debate. There was no studio audience.
Each of these features made Crossfire better. The one-subject rule made it impossible for the politicians to make it through the show on sound bites alone. That both hosts were journalists made for a fairer debate than the usual practice of today's political shows, which put journalists up against political operatives.
Ponnuru is fighting against Jon Stewart here, whose notion that Crossfire's shouting matches that pitted left against right are "hurting America" has become sort of conventional wisdom (among the moderate set that might attend a "Rally to Restore Sanity," or at least tune in on CSPAN, anyway.) Stewart's appearance on Crossfire in October 2004, during which he leveled that claim at then hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, is often referenced as a lethal blow since the program was cancelled shortly thereafter.
And it is brutal. CNN's president at the time, Jonathan Klein, even cited Stewart when he announced the network was killing the show in January 2005. Lumping in Crossfire with other "head-butting debate shows," Klein told The New York Times' Bill Carter, "I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart's overall premise." He added, "CNN is a different animal. We report the news. Fox talks about the news. They're very good at what they do and we're very good at what we do." Ponnuru doesn't really disagree with Stewart's (or for that matter Klein's) assessment, he just says those problems came about after the original format got perverted by political operatives and mob-like audiences rather than opinionated journalists.
Applauding Ponnuru's column are a lot of prominent opinion journalists (many of whom, let's assume, would or should be invited on a revived Crossfire, so there's that.) At The Daily Caller, the web site Carlson started after his cable talking head career sputtered post-Crossfire, Matt Lewis wrote, "A test of a man's ideas ought to be whether or not things improve after they are implemented ... Jon Stewart's accusation that CNN's Crossfire was 'hurting America' as an abject failure. If anything, cable news is more vapid than ever." New York's Jonathan Chait calls the column, "the defense of (and argument for bringing back) the classic Crossfire I wish I'd written." And Washington Examiner columnist Timothy Carney says, generously, "I will co-host."
Channeling Stewart to oppose the revival is Washington Post's Klein (no relation to Jonathan Klein that we know of), himself no stranger to cable news gigs. "Have to dissent from the Crossfire love," he tweets. "Splitting the world into left v. right arguments is the problem in politics, not the solution." He points to his own recent piece in The New Yorker during which he traces the way the individual mandate for health care went from a Republican invention to Republican anathema. "'Left' and 'right' change positions frequently, and often in response to party incentives rather than new information," he says. Crossfire's "left vs. right" construct would just further enable that.
But Klein and Ponnuru are operating on different planes. Klein, a self-styled wonk, wishes that CNN would make content that combats partisanship and promotes policy ideas. Ponnuru sorta accepts that cable news is going to feature political debate between left and right. He just wishes they'd do a better job, and he thinks the old Crossfire might help. He'd probably suggest that Crossfire address Klein's worry by bringing on ideological hosts willing to split with a party that's straying from their ideology once in awhile.
Klein's goal is more ambitious. Ponnuru's is more pragmatic. But speaking of pragmatism ... Ponnuru writes:
I bet there would be an audience for it once again. Of course, I'm not a professional TV executive. Then again, the professional executives at CNN sank millions into "Parker Spitzer." Maybe it's worth listening to someone else.
He has a point that CNN isn't doing such a great job with ratings these days. (Klein, the CNN president who decided to cancel Crossfire, left in 2010, after his just-the-news strategy failed to produce the kinds of consistent ratings to beat head-butting debate shows on Fox New and MSNBC.) But when high-minded journalists argue that journalism should be more high-minded, they tend to sound like they aren't thinking much about ratings either. As Ponnuru says of current cable news shows, "so much of the discussion on them is dumb, one-sided or both," and "a lot of people seem to like this kind of thing." That's not to say we think the revived Crossfire wouldn't draw an audience. We're not cable news executives either. It's just to say that no one in this mini-Crossfire of ours has really grappled with the idea. Reviewing some of the old Crossfire footage though, like this gem featuring Kinsley and Rush Limbaugh, we can't help but at least hope Ponnuru is right.