Just What Cable News Needs: More Bickering

Back in 2004, Jon Stewart went on the CNN show Crossfire and begged the hosts to "stop hurting America." The clip became an early viral video (this was before YouTube), and it was like the young boy shouting that the emperor has no clothes. Evidently, people at the network looked around at each other and said, "He's right. This is just awful. We have to cancel this show so we can look ourselves in the mirror again." Within weeks it was off the air.

I'm not saying that in the entire two decades of its previous incarnation, Crossfire was uniformly pernicious. But by the end it had reached a truly ghastly low, with Tucker Carlson and James Carville shouting over each other while a studio audience whooped and hollered in the background. Why anyone voluntarily subjected themselves to watching it remains a mystery. And now, Crossfire is back on the air. The obvious question is one you might ask yourself after a hurricane flooded your house or a bear killed and ate your favorite great-aunt: Why, God, why?

OK, so they've only had three days on the air. Maybe the show will become something truly unique and informative, offering fascinating debates on the day's news that leave viewers entertained and enlightened. Anthony Weiner might also win the presidency in 2016. It could happen, right?

There are two problems the show has, as I see it. The first is that the only thing that differentiates Crossfire from your standard daytime cable news programming in its content is that the liberals arguing with the conservatives are sitting at the same table, instead of in separate rooms being brought together via a remote feed. That's a good thing—it's much easier to have an interactive conversation with someone when you can see them, rather than taking turns for 30 seconds at a time while you sit alone in a room staring at a camera. But it's still the same people having the same arguments. So far, the bookers are just bringing on the current and ex-politicians you can see on plenty of other cable shows (hooray, we get to hear what Rick Santorum and Joe Lieberman think about Syria!).

The second problem is the hosts. The unique selling proposition of the show is that unlike shows with a single opinionated host, they have hosts from both sides. So for each segment they'll take one of the two liberals and one of two conservatives to debate with the guests. CNN deserves some credit for mixing up the all-white-guy format of the show's previous incarnation, but it's hard to believe that these four individuals are going to offer much that's interesting. Not because they aren't smart or informed, but just because of who they are and where they're coming from. Stephanie Cutter is a lifetime political hack (she worked most recently on President Obama's reelection campaign). S.E. Cupp came up through the conservative pundit ranks. Van Jones worked for President Obama, too. Newt Gingrich is Newt Gingrich.

With the possible exception of Jones (who only worked briefly in the administration and spent most of his career as an organizer), all of them can be counted on to repeat the arguments that other liberals and conservatives around Washington are making, without much risk that they'll have anything original to say about anything. So the show takes the dullest thing about cable news—the daily parade of vapid pundits, Democratic and Republican "strategists," and people who are there for little reason other than that they look good and know how to bicker while smiling—and gives it a whole half-hour.

At this point, the show is still working out its kinks. But even when it gets running smoothly, is it really going to be something people will want to watch? I can't see how.

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