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Crossfire Is Returning Early, Just in Time to Oversimplify Syria

The classic CNN argutainment show was based on the idea that every debate has two sides. But Syria, its reason for returning early, is proof that that assumption is wrong.

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Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, speaks at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Mar. 16, 2013, in National Harbor, Md.

Next week, the American government will debate taking the momentous step of launching punitive military strike against the Syrian government, which it accuses of having used chemical weapons against its own citizens. And as befits these trying times, CNN announced this weekend that it would step up and address a troubled nation’s need: for one more cable-news show about partisan windbags arguing with each other. Crossfire, Jeff Zucker’s revival of the CNN argutainment classic, will debut a week early, on Sept. 9.

OK, let’s be charitable and say that the move is about engaging in a public debate about important issues and not about chasing big debut ratings in what looks like a guaranteed big news week. (Actually, let’s be slightly less charitable and acknowledge that both things can be true at the same time.) Argument, debate, blathering–it may be annoying, but it’s also necessary, which is the very principle behind having Congress go on record with a vote.

And let’s be charitable again and recognize that there’s no reason the new Crossfire has to be as bad as the old Crossfire, which by the time it went off the air was rightly the poster child for unhelpful cable shoutfests. Dumb arguments may not help anyone, but it would be unfair to judge the intelligence of this new version of Crossfire before it even debuts.

The concept of Crossfire, though, is built into its title and it’s well-established since the ’80s: someone on the left argues with someone on the right. (The new Crossfire has four hosts–S.E. Cupp, Stephanie Cutter, Newt Gingrich, and Van Jones–but the plan is to have two on air any given day.) This side yells at that side, on the beloved news-media theory that, as CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist put it to The Hollywood Reporter, “The truth frequently lies somewhere in the middle.”

That whole “we give you both sides” argument–that any issue can be reduced to one Republican/right side and one Democratic/left side–is built into the DNA of most conventional Washington journalism. And yet the very Syria issue that is prompting Crossfire’s early return is proof that that worldview is wrong.

Because there is no “both sides” to Syria. There are at least four sides to the Syria issue, and the reason I don’t see even more is probably that I haven’t looked closely enough. There’s the Democratic internationalist side–think President Obama’s argument for action. There’s the antiwar-left side (think, say, Bernie Sanders). There’s the hawkish-conservative side (think John McCain) and the isolationist-conservative side (think Rand Paul). Your side, very likely, does not exactly match any of these. [Update: Even as I wrote this post, Republican House speaker John Boehner was–with Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi–announcing his support of Obama’s plan to attack Syria. So, who’s “from the left” and “from the right” on this one?]

And that’s just Syria. Any number of domestic and foreign issues today show that, while there maybe be two major parties, there are far more than two “sides.” Republicans are divided between establishmentarians and Tea Party activists, religious conservatives and secularists; Democrats have populist and technocrat wings, statists and libertarians, Wall Street and Occupy. On NSA surveillance, there are leftists who have much more in common with libertarian conservatives than they do with the Obama administration. We don’t just have two sides in politics but multiple X, Y, and Z-axes.

But even as the multiple vectors are clear to anyone paying attention, public dialogue is ever more partisan, polarized, and binary: one side has Fox News, and the other has MSNBC. In this framework, “your” side is defined as pretty much the opposite of whatever the people you usually hate are saying right now.

Theoretically, that’s where a channel like CNN has the opportunity not just to seize market share but to actually represent real-world debate better. But an old-fashioned argument show–where the idea is, essentially, to just give you the Fox and MSNBC worldviews on the same stage–would be a step backward.

Again, the new Crossfire doesn’t have to be that way (the fact that it has four hosts, albeit only two on-air at a time, might theoretically mean it can offer a more complex frame for debate). But it will need to reject the binary assumptions that are imprinted in its DNA. In the real world, crossfire comes from way more than two different directions.