The Crossfire News Network

One of the first cable TV talking head shows was the late “Crossfire” on CNN.

The concept was similar to NBC’s “Meet the Press” or CBS’ “Face the Nation,” with an important exception. Instead of having a (supposedly) neutral host and (supposedly) neutral questioners throwing questions at a politician, “Crossfire” was hosted by one conservative and one liberal asking the questions of the guest(s) and arguing among themselves.

The conservative hosts were most often the pugnacious Pat Buchanan (who once walked off his own show after taking offense at something some said) or Robert Novak. The liberals included Tom Braden, a newspaperman who was, believe it or not, the inspiration for ABC-TV’s “Eight Is Enough,” and Michael Kinsley.

The best pair was probably Kinsley and Buchanan, because they didn’t shy away from criticizing their ideological brethren. (Buchanan opposed the Iraq wars and is clearly not a Wall Street Journal Republican. In fact, Kinsley and Buchanan probably should have traded trade positions.)

“Crossfire” got criticized for its raised voices and for hosts and guests interrupting each other. (Which seems quaint today, doesn’t it?) The late left-wing columnist Alexander Cockburn (R.I.P.) claimed the liberals weren’t leftist enough and loved America too much. It was not, however, hosts and guests preaching to the choir, which is pretty much what you get from MSNBC and Fox News now.

Rammesh Ponnuru is a fan of the early “Crossfire,” not what it was before CNN pulled the plug:

Cable-television shows about politics are often blamed for polarizing Americans. To this way of thinking, they are responsible for much of the incivility of today’s political culture and have made it harder for us to work together to solve our problems.

This concern seems overblown to me. While the shows don’t help, their effect is probably small. The main sources of polarization lie elsewhere (especially, I would argue, in the way that courts have put social issues at the center of national politics).

The real problem with the cable-TV shows is that so much of the discussion on them is dumb, one-sided or both. (I trust that readers don’t need me to supply examples.) Their main function seems to be to provide Team Red and Team Blue with their daily talking points and with fresh causes for outrage at the other side. A lot of people seem to like this kind of thing, and it has its place in a robust democracy. …

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. …

The political strategists, on the other hand, will maintain that the sun shines at night if that’s what the message of the week demands. The debate will then feature concessions on only one side. A reborn “Crossfire” should sometimes invite strategists on air, but only when paired off against each other — and only when the day’s subject concerns political strategy. …

The actual “Crossfire” got worse when James Carville and Paul Begala became hosts. They are both very smart men, but they were (and are) still practicing politicos. It got worse, as well, when it added a studio audience. Hosts and guests alike now played to the crowd, which itself could add nothing more intelligent to the conversation than hoots and hollers. …

“Crossfire” was balanced by design, and 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.

Even at its best, “Crossfire” had its critics. They called it a “shoutfest,” which it usually wasn’t. They faulted it for hardening our left-right division. But the value of a show like “Crossfire” isn’t that it ends or even reduces partisanship. It’s that it forces partisanship to be more intelligent and honest. That’s a service we could use now more than ever.

I’ve been on several shows with a variant of that kind of format, though as a guest, not a host. I still appear from time to time on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Joy Cardin Week in Review Fridays at 8 a.m. I was on the late WeekEnd show on Wisconsin Public Television Friday nights. I also was on WTMJ-TV’s “Sunday Insight with Charlie Sykes.” I also did a similar format on the former Jo Egelhoff show on WHBY radio in Appleton.

In all of these cases, to avoid sounding like a completely partisan idiot, you have to not only be able to argue your own points, but to counter contrary points, and often on the fly since you never know for certain what your foil(s) will say. Exposure to points of view other than your own helps improve your arguments of your own views. And disagreement makes for better TV than several people all agreeing with each other.

I think CNN should bring back “Crossfire,” particularly if they can find a liberal and a conservative to host who do not necessarily always sing from the left- or right-wing hymnal. A conservatarian, perhaps.

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