New “Crossfire” hosts (l-r) Stephanie Cutter, Van Jones, S.E. Cupp and Newt Gingrich.
When last we saw CNN’s “Crossfire,” it resembled a scene from “Animal House,” minus the togas.
Eight years later, “Crossfire” has learned its manners, according to CNN. Hosts will use their indoor voices, and will allow each other to finish sentences. The experiment begins at 6:30 tonight, with Newt Gingrich and Stephanie Cutter on set with two guests.
“You have to wait for someone to finish, then make your point,” says CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist, who began his CNN career as a “Crossfire” intern in 1989. “We get that. Obviously, it’s something to be mindful of. At the same time, we want to have passionate conversations.”
Even with what’s being billed as a kinder, gentler “Crossfire,” the question remains as to whether the conservative-vs.-liberal roundtable, launched in 1982, matters anymore in a radically altered cable topography.
Given that Fox News and MSNBC have become so polarized, a political program with both sides equally represented is more important than ever, says Charles Bierbauer, Dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Mass Communications and a CNN correspondent for 20 years.
“Whatever happened to the guy in the middle?” he opines. “I, as a viewer, like more than one point of view on issues. We’ve evolved, or devolved, to the notion that tuning into Fox gives you a right wing, conservative perspective and tuning into MSNBC gives you a left wing, liberal perspective.”
Going a step further, Feist says CNN “is the only cable-news channel that is capable of hosting “Crossfire” in an authentic way…. We’re bipartisan. Our job is to represent all points of view. It’s hard to imagine viewers would trust other channels to offer a debate program with equally balanced hosts and guests.”
“Balance” often leads to a deafening decibel level. Toward the end, this was “Crossfire’s” hallmark, fueled even more by a vocal studio audience. In his infamous 2004 appearance, Jon Stewart decried the cacophony, which led, in part, to ex-CNN chief Jonathan Klein’s decision to euthanize the show.
“Crossfire’s” approach was emblematic of the time’s ‘argument culture,’ says Amy S. Mitchell, new director of Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
“Pitting one side against another, they often ended up arguing past each other,” Mitchell says. “It was a sort of blood sport, not a way of coming to the middle and finding consensus.”
Now we have moved into what Mitchell calls ‘the culture of affirmation.’ Not only do more programs present one point of view, but more viewers tend to watch only programs that re-affirm their own views.
“Crossfire” will only succeed if it focuses on issues, not personalities, says University of South Carolina’s Bierbauer. Particularly when the personalities use the show as a soapbox instead of an exchange of dialogue.
“I’m a little tired of people who use these programs as showcases for their careers,” he says. “If one panelist is an 800-pound gorilla, how do you balance that? You’re still in a format where it’s one versus one.”
CNN’s Feist says the absence of a studio audience and the focus on only one topic per show will prevent “Crossfire 2.0″ from regressing into a steel-cage match. Hosts won’t play to the crowd, and discussing one issue “will bring some depth to the conversation,” he says.
Conversely, Bierbauer says, “if people want shouting and confrontation and innuendo, they can watch ‘Big Brother.’”