Tuned In

The New Crossfire Parties Like It’s 2003

The return of CNN's punditry face-off managed to be both snide and stilted at the same time.

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John Nowak / CNN

Crossfire with hosts Stephanie Cutter and Newt Gingrich: Sen. Robert Menendez and Sen. Rand Paul join hosts Newt Gingrich and Stephanie Cutter in the Crossfire to debate a congressional authorization for a Syria strike.

Is it already time for for early-’00s nostalgia? On CNN yesterday, it was 2003 again. The United States was debating a military strike against a Middle Eastern dictator. At issue were chemical weapons and the unknown dangers of war. There was a last-ditch effort to put WMDs under international control.

And there to guide us through it—with ESPN-style graphics, whooshing sound effects, and painfully scripted-sounding dialogue—was Crossfire! Nearly a decade after it left the air, CNN’s argutainment classic was back, with its left-right dynamic, its two guests in the Crossfire, and its time-tested philosophy that the nation could truly work through its most difficult issues if only cable pundits would be snottier to one another.

The hosts of the first outing–“On the left: Stephanie Cutter! On the right: Newt Gingrich!”–opened on a note that was not just snide but uncomfortably stilted. As they delivered their snide openings to each other, you could practically see the teleprompter’s reflection in their eyes. (“Stephanie, I’ve heard of leading from behind, but did you ever think you’d see Putin bailing out President Obama?” “Well, Newt, I don’t know where you’ve been over the past two years, but we couldn’t even get Putin to acknowledge that Syria was a risk.”) If you’re going to have on-air sniping as news entertainment, it should at least be genuine and from the gut; this was forced, like watching a catfight between stuffed cats.

The new iteration of Crossfire (which will also feature Van Jones and S.E. Cupp other nights) did end on a new segment, Ceasefire, in which Cutter and Gingrich highlighted the points on which they do agree: that Obama has a tough sell, that a peaceful settlement would be great, and that the situation was highly fluid. In other words: that the big news of the day was big news. So, thanks for that.

But substantively, as I suspected last week, the bigger problem was that Syria was exactly the kind of issue that flummoxes Crossfire’s partisan assumptions. (Related note: nothing like an actual war in which tens of thousands of people are dying to make your show’s cliché gunfire metaphor seem super-crass.) There’s not really a “from the left, from the right” on it; guest Rand Paul’s opposition to the attack could have been delivered by a leftist guest as well. Meanwhile, opposing him was Sen. Robert Menendez, making a qualified endorsement of a “limited strike.” Contain your qualified, limited excitement!

So Cutter and Gingrich retreated into the comfort zone of lowest-common-denominator cable news: define the issue entirely in terms of what’s bad for your political enemies. Forget the wisdom of war or the feasibility of eliminating chemical weapons: is this a political black eye for President Obama or a brave risk? Was the last-minute Russian proposal to get Syria to turn over chemical weapons a diplomatic coup or a sign of weakness? Break out the poll results!

The situation in Syria is a complicated one involving multiple sides, political vectors, and bad choices. That’s where a show like Crossfire comes in: it’s a machine designed to reduce anything to partisan dualism, to good-for-our-side, bad-for-their-side. Foreign interventions come and go, but that crossfire goes on and on and on.


From the Wikipedia entry on the show: "Prior to the relaunch of the show, CNN published an article listing "9 favorite Crossfire moments." Comments on the article noted the absence of Jon Stewart's appearance on the show."


You might recall when Jon Stewart embarrassed and demolished Crossfire on-air in 2004, leading to the show's eventual cancellation.  Ironically, I was in the audience of The Daily Show last night on the night of the re-launch of Crossfire.

From the audience, I asked Jon Stewart what he thought of the re-launch of this "partisan hackery". He joked something to the effect "... that truck is already in the ditch". 

The problem as I see it is that CNN is a market participant with a public relations and brand problem because, they want to pretend like they are a community trustee and for this reason, Crossfire will once again “fail miserably”.  This is because CNN’s top executives are trying to pull a fast one on the American public-- objectivity means “judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices.”

Jeff Zucker has recently said "So for us, the path is objectivity. And just because you’re being objective doesn’t mean you can’t have points of view. Witness, Crossfire, okay?”

But, in objectivity you cannot have a point-of-view. With journalistic objectivity, you simply report on what you see and hear-- what is observable. Emotions or personal prejudices are not observable-- but, they are in each and every one of us; they are derived from lived experience and our own personal commitments.

Further, the problem with explaining and predicting in the social, cultural and political is that you have to deal descriptions of reality as they relate to risk and blame; this requires some sort of journalistic editorializing and advocacy for something-- all four of the hosts have to stand somewhere.

Also, the broader problem is that, internally, CNN's public relations is linked directly with sales and marketing, as it pertains to "research". The internal drive and organizational assumptions are towards ad sales, not ensuring public discourse; (MSNBC and Fox News have the same problem).  In fact, to actually take up this role of community trustee would be likely be detrimental to their ad revenue-- so instead, they chose to fake it and force reasoned discourse on their staff.  In the end-- all they can do is offer partisan hackery with little understanding at the executive level of what the term "reasoned discourse" even means.  

Meanwhile, the public is left to wrestle with the question opened up by the weakening of the Fairness Doctrine, specifically as it pertains to the contrast between broadcasters as community trustees versus broadcasters as marketplace participants.  The weakening and eventual deletion of the Fairness Doctrine is what opened the market opportunity for Fox News and MSNBC to emerge and while the market gave us these gifts and now, CNN is trying to find their place but-- they are not willing to actually do the hard work.

The truth of the matter is CNN sells ad and they want only to drive eyeballs to their content, they care very little about the common good or public discourse, specifically as pertains to being a community trustee; although, from the public relations view they want to appears as if they care a lot. 

Jon Stewart called it clearly-- they are hurting America and CNN still does not even understand why or how simply because their prism is focused solely on their role as a marketplace participant, and they are consistently turning away from their responsibility as a committee trustee.

This is specifically where Crossfire and ultimately, CNN will continue to fail until, internally, they can wrestle with the changes in audience expectations and then, begin to re-focus their priorities.


Simply a sign of the current state of American journalism.  Not that you would ever point fingers, but I sure as heck can.  Here's your colleague Michael Crowley's most recent headline at Swampland:

"Russia’s Plan for Syria Could Rescue Obama, if Only it Wasn’t Likely to Fail"

Hey Michael, you know who could really be effected by this plan?  The Syrian populace, that's facing the simultaneous threats of chemical gassing by its own government as well as 'limited scope high tech' bombing by ours (to say nothing of the 2 1/2 year old bombardment by conventional ordinance that they'll continue to endure in any case).