Dear CNN: Don’t Revive Crossfire
Word’s out that you want to relaunch the old Crossfire show, that point-counterpoint program that you ran for 20 years or so until the mid-aughts, until Jon Stewart unceremoniously killed it to demonstrate his newfound status as a media power player. The temptation is understandable, the concept so simple it’s a wonder you haven’t tried to dust it off before now: Find somebody from the left, give them an antagonist from the right, give them new guests every night and let everybody yell. It’s cheaper than paying reporters to go do journalism, right?
So here’s my plea. Don’t.
Look around the cable news dial, and really, there’s no shortage of yelling these days. Granted, your old strategy of pitting Democrats and Republicans against each other on more or less equal terms might count as a so-old-it’s-new innovation—sometime in the last decade or so, some TV executive figured out that you didn’t actually have to have an opponent in the studio for there to be yelling, outrage, umbrage and the rest on camera: Sean Hannity’s done pretty well ever since he stopped pretending that Alan Colmes was his co-host, right? And so it is up-and-down the dial: Fox News provides voices for conservatives to hear, MSNBC provides red meat for the liberals, and ne’er shall the twain meet.
What’s more, it’s all kind of drearily predictable, isn’t it? All we need is a list of hosts and show topics for an evening, and we probably know what’s going to be said hours before it’s actually said. These shows may be about the “news” but they rarely surprise us with some outside-the-box opinion, some new fact that changes a perspective. The audiences for those shows, moreover, probably aren’t interested in those kinds of surprises.
That leaves us with lots of volume and precious little illumination. A new Crossfire doesn’t really change that, does it?
Of course, that leaves a question of how to fill an hour of prime time programming every weeknight and make it profitable. High-mindedness doesn’t really generate that many dollars on its own: Is there a way you can do good and do well?
The most encouraging recent development on cable news in the last year has been the emergence of Chris Hayes on MSNBC—first with a weekend show, and then last week with his move into prime time for the network. Yes, Hayes is unmistakably liberal, but he’s got two qualities rare for a prime time pundit: He’s humble and he’s curious. When he engages conservatives on his show, he’s engaging them, not conducting the night’s ritualistic pissing contest.
So find somebody like him. Or lots of somebodies. Maybe Ezra Klein, who subs in for Rachel Maddow on occasion. Maybe The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates whose style of humble-but-thoughtful exploration makes him one of our greatest writers working today. Or pluck somebody from the right who shows the same independence and thoughtfulness—Conor Friedersdorf, perhaps, or National Review’s Reihan Salam. And don’t forget women: A pop-culture-politics blogger like Alyssa Rosenberg or a top-notch reporter like Klein’s wife, Annie Lowery, would fit in well with this list.
In fact, the best thing to do would be to shake up the prime time news format and use all of them in some kind of rotating mix like The View, so that none of them gets burned out and each can contribute at the highest level, while encouraging a fun and thoughtful mix of conversation representing a range of views while eschewing the sound-bite flame wars.
You want your debates? You’ll get ‘em. Do you want your audience walking away from your show feeling smarter than before they watched? This is the route to go.
Then again, Chris Hayes’ first-week ratings kind of stunk. People miss his predecessor, Ed Schultz, who was king of the red-faced demagogues. Maybe that really is what people want.
But they’re already getting that, CNN. So why not try something new? You can always go back to the tried-and-true shoutfests if this doesn’t work.