New ‘Crossfire’ Offers Partisanship With A Side of Fake Friendly

CNN’s reincarnated segment reflects its ambivalence about where to fit into a crowded field of televised political commentary.

(Twitter/CrossfireCNN)
National Journal
Marin Cogan
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Marin Cogan
Sept. 10, 2013, 7:38 a.m.

Cross­fire was ori­gin­ally sup­posed to start Sept. 16, but CNN moved up the premi­er to Monday night due to the break­ing news on Syr­ia.

The de­cision was ques­tion­able — the show aired on the same night the pres­id­ent gave sit-down in­ter­views to the ma­jor tele­vi­sion net­works — but it is one that re­flec­ted the pre­vail­ing mood of Wash­ing­ton, with law­makers and staff re­turn­ing from Au­gust re­cess anxious to do something about the pres­id­ent’s pro­pos­al for in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia, even if that something is ac­tu­ally noth­ing, and amid deep skep­ti­cism that Wash­ing­ton is even cap­able of de­cid­ing, let alone ex­ecut­ing, a de­cision on one of the most im­port­ant is­sues it has de­bated in years.

It was only nine years ago that Jon Stew­art em­bar­rassed former Cross­fire host Tuck­er Carlson in the show’s most mem­or­able per­form­ance for hurt­ing the na­tion­al dis­course with its polit­ic­al hack­ery. When the show was can­celed a few months later, CNN’s pres­id­ent con­ceded Stew­art’s point.

Times have changed. (It is hard to ima­gine, in 2013, Carlson and Stew­art’s squab­bling over wheth­er Stew­art was in fact John Kerry’s “butt boy.”) But in hir­ing two of Wash­ing­ton’s most high-pro­file hacks — former GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Newt Gin­grich and former Obama deputy cam­paign man­ager Stephanie Cut­ter — CNN ap­peared to be try­ing to strike a bal­ance between the cri­ti­cism that chased it off the air in 2005 and the un­deni­able suc­cess their com­pet­it­ors have had in rep­lic­at­ing its format.

Were they able to have it both ways? Both hosts seemed con­scious of upend­ing ex­pect­a­tions. In its first epis­ode, view­ers were treated to a wink­ing, con­geni­al Gin­grich, an un­fa­mil­i­ar sight to those who watched his un­likely rise as a can­did­ate for the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion last year, and a nervous, hu­man-seem­ing Cut­ter, fam­ous in polit­ic­al circles for her hard-bit­ten ap­proach to polit­ics. They sat a little too close while Gin­grich re­coun­ted the latest news about the Rus­si­an of­fer to help se­cure Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al-weapons stock­pile.

They en­gaged in a stil­ted back and forth, em­ploy­ing false fa­mili­ar­ity by us­ing each oth­er’s first names too of­ten: “Now Stephanie, I’ve heard of lead­ing from be­hind, but did you ever think you’d see Putin bail­ing out Pres­id­ent Obama?” Gin­grich asked. “Well, Newt, I don’t know where you’ve been over the last two years, but we couldn’t even get Putin to ac­know­ledge that Syr­ia was a risk,” Cut­ter said in ri­poste.

The show broke down along the usu­al par­tis­an lines, with Cut­ter and Demo­crat­ic Sen. Robert Men­en­dez ar­guing in sup­port of the pres­id­ent’s po­s­i­tion and Gin­grich and Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Rand Paul ar­guing against it. But this time the po­s­i­tions were flipped in a way that re­flec­ted how much the polit­ics have changed since Cross­fire went off the air, with Men­en­dez mak­ing the hawk­ish case and Paul po­s­i­tion­ing him­self as the an­ti­war politi­cian.

In a nod to the show’s at­tempt at par­tis­an­ship without pu­er­il­ity, it ended with a seg­ment called “Cease­fire,” where the co-hosts make nice by re­cit­ing a few points they found they can agree on. But the seg­ment felt too pat, and their points of agree­ment were too ano­dyne to be in­ter­est­ing. Cut­ter said that the two agreed that the pos­sib­il­ity of a Rus­si­an pro­pos­al to se­cure chem­ic­al weapons was a good thing, and that the polling showed Obama would have a tough time get­ting Con­gress to ap­prove mil­it­ary ac­tion. Gin­grich said that they could agree that the break­ing news of the last 48 hours had been “tu­mul­tu­ous.”

Cut­ter said that they could agree that the polling show­ing most Amer­ic­ans op­posed to a Syr­i­an in­ter­ven­tion was not an ac­cur­ate as­sess­ment of pop­u­lar opin­ion be­cause “they were duped in­to war 10 years ago with weapons of mass de­struc­tion that didn’t ex­ist and now they’re forced to make a de­cision on weapons of mass de­struc­tion that do ex­ist.” Gin­grich cocked an eye­brow — ap­par­ently on this they didn’t agree — but, he ad­ded, they both agreed that you can fol­low the show on Face­book and Twit­ter to share your thoughts.

It was a per­fect re­flec­tion of CNN’s am­bi­val­ence about where it fits in­to the great­er tele­vi­sion land­scape. If the net­work can’t pick a side, it can at least let their hosts pick one.

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