“When you watch it now do you think, ‘My God, what have I done…allowing these sorts of shows to be on?,’” Jon Stewart asked guest—and former New Republic editor—Michael Kinsley in May of 2003. Stewart was referencing the plethora of gladiatorial evening talk shows then proliferating on cable news. Kinsley, he suggested, bore some responsibility because he had hosted CNN’s “Crossfire” between 1989 and 1995.
Stewart’s jihad against battle-royal TV started not long after he took over “The Daily Show” in 1999. The campaign would reach its apotheosis in 2004, when he went on “Crossfire” to accuse its hosts of “hurting America.” Not long after that appearance, the show was cancelled. And by then, his critique had become the official narrative for bien-pensant America: “Crossfire” had ruined TV debate. Among those who seemed to share this take was CNN’s own president, who announced that he agreed with almost everything Stewart had said.
With "Crossfire" set for a return to television, there remains a consensus that the show is a blight on our democracy. There’s only one problem with this version of events: It’s not true.
Yes, there was plenty to hate about “Crossfire” in its late years. Filmed in front of a live audience at George Washington University, the show was more “gong show,” as one former host called it, than debate show. It featured multiple topics per episode and a “rapid fire” segment that emphasized flash and talking points over intellectual honesty. The hosts, once staid journalists and pundits, were replaced by political operatives like Paul Begala, James Carville, and Mary Matalin. Yelling matches between hosts became the norm. The New York Times deemed the show an “afternoon shoutfest.”
In a fit of self-parody, Crossfire’s final episode featured hosts congratulating themselves over a show that was not “just talking points from the Democratic Party [and] the Republican Party.” The evidence? A clip of host James Carville—a former Democratic strategist—conceding that the 2002 election, during which Democrats lost control of the Senate, was a bad night for his party.
But to blame this caricatured version of “Crossfire” for the baleful state of cable talk shows is to reverse cause and effect. The late-stage “Crossfire” had shifted format precisely to keep pace with newcomers like “Hannity and Colmes” or “Hardball,” both of which appeared on networks that didn’t exist during the show’s heyday. For much of its run, “Crossfire” was, well, decent in both discussion and quality, lively without being rude. Classic “Crossfire” featured two hosts—representing the left and right, respectively—moderating a discussion between two guests on opposite sides of an issue. There was one topic for the entire half-hour show. The guests would field questions from the hosts designed to start a discussion. Then they would actually face follow-up questions, some of which made a mockery out of subpar arguments.
For most of its run, which began with a radio show in 1978 and then shifted to CNN a few years after the network’s 1980 founding, “Crossfire” was sort of a paragon of the establishment media. Raised voices were common, but the angry yelling and point scoring that are hallmark of shows today were rarely seen among guests and virtually non-existent among hosts. Set against a simple black backdrop, episodes felt a lot more like “Charlie Rose” than “The O’Reilly Factor.” (So impressive was the Frank Zappa censorship debate that it was featured in a few of my college American history courses.) Of course, even early “Crossfire” had its critics. But much of their attention was focused on personnel—placing a mainstream Democrat alongside culture-warrior cohost Patrick Buchanan was alleged to move the entire debate rightward.
The program was also a place where journalists would call out perceived violations of journalistic ethics. When Dan Rather conducted an interview with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush that some deemed an ambush, “Crossfire” did an entire show on the affair, with three of the participants agreeing that Rather had “gone over the line” with his comments. Similarly, “Crossfire” had talk show hosts Bob Lassiter and a young Rush Limbaugh on for an episode titled “Radio Radicals.” Both moves—not to mention Rather’s interview itself—would seem quaint and patronizing by today’s standard.
The cracks in the media establishment began to show in the late 1980s, even before the rise of Fox News and MSNBC. Beginning with the “Morton Downey Jr. Show” and talk radio, it became clear that there was an appetite for conflict, resentment, and shows that played it fast and loose with the facts. “Crossfire” maintained its high—well, for cable—ratings, but talk radio was proving that there was more than one way to be, as Kinsley put it, “the conversation of American democracy.”
As other networks began importing radio hosts like Sean Hannity and otherwise trying to figure out how to take the popular talk radio format into the realm of television, CNN did some tinkering around the edges. The network created a Sunday edition of “Crossfire” that was hosted by political operatives like Tony Snow, Lynne Cheney, and Bob Beckel. It hired washed-up pols like John Sununu and Geraldine Ferraro as rotating weekday hosts. But even as the debates got dumber1 and the hosts got ruder, no ratings boom followed.
By 2002, CNN executives finally realized that TV had changed, but “Crossfire” hadn’t. They disastrously revamped the show—live audience and all—in hopes of catching a bit of the ratings magic of Fox News. But the audience for “Crossfire” was gone. Even an MSNBC knockoff of the original show hosted by Pat Buchanan and Bill Press couldn’t gain traction. Decent TV debate was already dead.
Now it looks like “Crossfire” will be back, possibly as early as this June. And given the intellectually dubious lineup for prime-time political talk, it’s tempting to think that reviving the old show might just class up cable news a bit. Alas, it’s not to be: CNN is apparently in talks with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich about being a cohost. It’s unlikely that they’re expecting Gingrich to show off his professorial side, too: His likely cohost would be former Obama operative Stephanie Cutter. In other words, if the negotiations succeed, they’ll be reviving the hack-pol combination that characterized late-vintage “Crossfire.”
There’s something particularly delightful about the choice of Gingrich as host. As House Speaker following the Republican rout of 1994, Gingrich helped mainstream the sort of invective that had been theretofore relegated to AM radio and the fringes of the political spectrum—and which helped do in “Crossfire” the first time. If they do bring back “Crossfire,” they’ll be bringing back the wrong version of it.
For the record, Kinsley—who sits about 20 feet from me, though he has an office and I’m manning the front desk—seems to have seen what was coming all along. Years earlier, in his introduction to the “Crossfire” episode featuring Limbaugh and Lassiter, he attempted to rebut some of the then-nascent criticisms of the show. “Do you ever feel that ‘Crossfire’ isn't simplistic enough for you? That the discussion is too calm and rational?” he asked. “Well, tonight we're going to show you just how lucky you are most other nights.” We had no idea how good we had it.
Not that “Crossfire” would have ever been confused with the Oxford Union, but Jerry Falwell debating the Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights over Ellen DeGeneres coming out on television is a terrible debate, and barely even decent television.