“Crossfire” by a Different Name

CNN is launching a debate program featuring one host from the Left and another from the Right. Why not call it "Crossfire"?

When news broke earlier this week that Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker would host a debate show on CNN, I had the same thought as Michael Kinsley.  But, since he took the trouble of writing it down and I didn’t, let’s go with his version:

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.

Now, in fairness to Klein, “Crossfire” had long since become stale by the time he pulled the plug.   During its heyday, Kinsley and Pat Buchanan faced off with unconventional, incredibly smart debate.  Neither of the posts were partisan hacks, which meant they weren’t always predictable, and both had a facility for conceding when the other side made a good point.  But Bill Press and Bob Beckel and Paul Begala and James Carville were all in fact partisan hacks, and thus incredibly poor replacements for Kinsley.   On the right,  Bob Novak was a legendary columnist but he just came across as angry and contrived on television.  Fred Barnes was too bland. And, while Carlson is divergent enough from the Republican mainstream as to be interesting, he was no Pat Buchanan.

I’d long since stopped watching regularly when Klein put the show out of its misery.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. steve says:

    The one way in which this could be different, is the broader talent pool now. If they just stick with the usual politicians, it will be boring and a talking points battle. However, suppose they squared off say, Thoma or DeLong vs Kling or Miron on the deficit debate. People who actually know the real numbers and facts. Maybe a debate on whether we should stay in NATO which might feature some prominent writer from outside the beltway? IOW, if they got people who know what they are talking about but eschew the official party line unless it is one they independently agree with.


  2. wr says:

    Why not call it Crossfire? For the same reason the Tea Party Movement doesn’t call itself the John BIrch Society of the Ku Klux Klan — some names are just poisoned by history…

  3. Pete says:

    Another grown up joins the fray!

    wr, please confine your deep analysis to the sewers on the left.

  4. Juneau: says:

    Why not call it Crossfire? For the same reason the Tea Party Movement doesn’t call itself the John BIrch Society of the Ku Klux Klan — some names are just poisoned by history

    And for the same reason that the Democrat party doesn’t call itself “The National Democratic Socialist Party.”