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Save Political Debate. Bring Back ‘Crossfire.’

Illustration by Damien Correll Close

Illustration by Damien Correll

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Illustration by Damien Correll

Cable-television shows about politics are often blamed for polarizing Americans. To this way of thinking, they are responsible for much of the incivility of today’s political culture and have made it harder for us to work together to solve our problems.

This concern seems overblown to me. While the shows don’t help, their effect is probably small. The main sources of polarization lie elsewhere (especially, I would argue, in the way that courts have put social issues at the center of national politics).

The real problem with the cable-TV shows is that so much of the discussion on them is dumb, one-sided or both. (I trust that readers don’t need me to supply examples.) Their main function seems to be to provide Team Red and Team Blue with their daily talking points and with fresh causes for outrage at the other side. A lot of people seem to like this kind of thing, and it has its place in a robust democracy.

There is a way to elevate the political debate a little bit, though, and it’s simple: One of the cable networks should bring back “Crossfire.” Yes, that’s the CNN show that Jon Stewart attacked in 2004 for “hurting America,” shortly before its 23-year run ended.

Sharpening Arguments

By the time Stewart appeared on it to promote his book, the show had degenerated. At its height, though, it did a good job of sharpening political arguments. And the original format, to my mind, has never been bettered.

The show ran for half an hour and examined one question. There were two hosts: one liberal, one conservative, both opinion journalists rather than operatives for a political party. In the early 1990s, Michael Kinsley (now a Bloomberg View columnist) and Patrick Buchanan did the job. There were two guests, usually politicians or public-policy experts on each side of the debate. There was no studio audience.

Each of these features made “Crossfire” better. The one-subject rule made it impossible for the politicians to make it through the show on sound bites alone. That both hosts were journalists made for a fairer debate than the usual practice of today’s political shows, which put journalists up against political operatives.

Those journalists who are fair-minded, even if they generally sympathize with one party over another, will fault both parties when they find it appropriate. On free trade, for example, Buchanan was at odds with most Republicans and Kinsley with most Democrats. Robert Novak, a later host, who died in 2009, was fiercely conservative. He was a dove on foreign policy, though, and he prided himself on never having been offered a job by any administration.

The political strategists, on the other hand, will maintain that the sun shines at night if that’s what the message of the week demands. The debate will then feature concessions on only one side. A reborn “Crossfire” should sometimes invite strategists on air, but only when paired off against each other -- and only when the day’s subject concerns political strategy.

Balanced by Design

The actual “Crossfire” got worse when James Carville and Paul Begala became hosts. They are both very smart men, but they were (and are) still practicing politicos. It got worse, as well, when it added a studio audience. Hosts and guests alike now played to the crowd, which itself could add nothing more intelligent to the conversation than hoots and hollers. (Speaking of playing to the crowd: The original “Crossfire” wouldn’t have had Stewart on, since his humor book doesn’t lend itself to a good debate.)

So go back to the old format. Just last week, Jeffrey Bewkes, the chief executive officer of CNN’s parent company, Time Warner Inc., said he was dissatisfied with the channel’s ratings but didn’t want to imitate MSNBC or the Fox News Channel by adopting an all-but-explicit ideological orientation.

“Crossfire” was balanced by design, and I bet there would be an audience for it once again. Of course, I’m not a professional TV executive. Then again, the professional executives at CNN sank millions into “Parker Spitzer.” Maybe it’s worth listening to someone else.

Even at its best, “Crossfire” had its critics. They called it a “shoutfest,” which it usually wasn’t. They faulted it for hardening our left-right division. But the value of a show like “Crossfire” isn’t that it ends or even reduces partisanship. It’s that it forces partisanship to be more intelligent and honest. That’s a service we could use now more than ever.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net

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