Rest in peace, 'Crossfire'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HUNGRY FOR AN issue that will unite us rather than divide us, Americans have settled on a loathing of TV shows that divide us rather than unite us. The best-known of these so-called shoutfests is CNN's Crossfire, which has now been sacrificed on the altar of bad publicity.

In October, the nation's philosopher-king, Jon Stewart, appeared on Crossfire and hilariously bested the show's two co-hosts on the question of Crossfire itself. Mr. Stewart's performance was a bit of a cheat. He grandly begged his interlocutors to "stop hurting America," then he repelled any counterargument by retreating into his shell like a turtle and declaring that he was just a comedian.

As a connoisseur of evasive techniques on TV interview shows (everyone needs a hobby), I didn't think there were any new ones waiting to be discovered. Boy, was I wrong.

And it worked. It seemed to touch a chord in the electronic community of political obsessives, who rose up as one voice to declare that they hadn't watched Crossfire for years but were bothered by the possibility that others might be doing so. Probably no single show of Crossfire has ever had as much impact on the actual course of events. Unfortunately, the impact was that CNN canceled Crossfire after 23 years.

Or maybe this wasn't especially unfortunate. Twenty-three years is a good run. I used to work as a co-host of Crossfire, and I got sick of it after six. During that time, I often heard the arguments against shoutfests. They boil down to two: First, the general level of discussion is low. Second, framing every issue as an argument corrupts the larger political discourse.

It is certainly true that if intellectual sophistication is what you're looking for, The New York Review of Books might be a better resource for you than The McLaughlin Group.

But the conversation of democracy is conducted on multiple levels, and there is a tradeoff. An article in The New Republic is a topical lotion on the body politic that may or may not penetrate down to the vital organs. An appearance on Bill O'Reilly's show is an injection straight to the heart.

The conceit that there are exactly 2.0 sides to every question, one "left" and one "right," is a genuine flaw of Crossfire-type shows. Another is the fact that the argument goes on forever, and nobody's mind is ever changed. But they have a great advantage over other variations of TV talking-head journalism in terms of intellectual honesty.

The two main variants are the Meet the Press format, in which journalists ask questions from a studied posture of political neutrality, and the roundtable, like Capital Gang and segments of many news shows, in which journalists spout opinions and prognostications about far more subjects than any one human being can possibly have anything intelligent to say.

The building block of Crossfire and its imitators is the tendentious question: a question from an explicit point of view. This is liberating. You don't have to pretend that you have no opinion on the subject you're badgering a politician about, and you also don't have to pretend that you know all about some topic that had never crossed your mind until that morning's paper.

Even in its heyday, many politicians would not appear on Crossfire. They liked to blame the shouting, but the amount of shouting was always exaggerated. Politicians avoided Crossfire because they were afraid. This was a show where their techniques of evasion didn't work as well because there were fewer decorous conventions they could hide behind.

Crossfire didn't cause the ideological divisions in this country. It reflected them. Sometimes it reflected them so well that people got angry, and they shouted. But that anger was usually genuine. These were people doing democracy the honor of feeling deeply about it. That's not so terrible.

Michael Kinsley is the editorial and opinion page editor of the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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