Obviously we are in the midst of a freakish and terrifying week of news. The Boston Marathon was bombed, possible ricin-laced letters (ricin screening has a high rate of false positives, and as far as I know the FBI is still awaiting confirmation of the initial tests) were sent to political figures, some crazy dude was detained for leaving suspicious (but ultimately determined not dangerous) packages in Senate offices, and last night a town in Texas exploded. Fortunately it doesn’t appear anyone has been hurt in the possible ricin attack, but there are several fatalities in the West, Texas explosion, and the some of the firefighters who responded to the initial fire and were caught in the explosion are still missing. Good thoughts for them and their loved ones. Oh, and Senate obstructionism defeated watered-down gun control legislation, which is absurd but not unexpected for the World’s Worst Deliberative Body. I’m writing about something completely different because it feels like taking a break from everything that’s happening.
Word came a couple of weeks ago that CNN is bringing back “Crossfire,” because I guess it hearkens back to a more optimistic time when CNN was less a punchline and more an active force in destroying journalistic credibility in this country. While mostly loathing this decision to resurrect a show that was comfortably and justly rotting in a crypt underneath CNN HQ, I have a few ideas about how this could be done in a way that improves, rather than further degrades, the quality of cable news. I have offered my unsolicited advice to CNN in the past, and I don’t know why I care but I do, because a totally revamped CNN is probably the best chance this country has of getting actual journalism back on TV on a station that will be carried by all the major service providers.
Disclaimer: I am just Some Guy on the Internet, and as such I have no experience in running a last-place laughingstock of a 24-hour cable news network. Please bear that in mind.
First of all, the name has to go. Do you know when we should use the word “crossfire”? When people are actually in a crossfire. Having one putz asking insipid questions and/or yelling at one guy “from the right” and another putz ask insipid questions and/or yell at another guy “from the left” resembles a “crossfire” in the same way that Mickey Mouse resembles the rat that lives in the alley behind my house. Silly bullshit like calling a political debate show “Crossfire” is what helped popularize the notion of “politics as #WAR” that infests our political culture today and empowers obstructionist lunatics. This was true 30 years ago, but it’s much, much more important today, when we’ve got gun massacres happening in this country at the rate of one a week. Your pointless pundit-off should maybe not remind people of that.
Now, the show itself. The problem with bringing back “Crossfire,” aside from the fact that the show sucked (and no, Bill Press, it always sucked, it didn’t just suddenly start sucking when they added a live audience), is that there’s no point to it now. 30 years ago, when CNN was really trying to do journalism, “Crossfire” was somewhat unique in that it was a half-hour where you could watch two
grown-up asshole children partisan DC fucksticks political types spin and debate the news of the day from their blinkered perspectives. Today, when CNN is basically a 24 hour feed of idiots shouting whatever comes into their heads at any given moment, and cable news in general has become one giant political talking point workshop, it’s a half-hour of the exact same shit you get the rest of the day. So my suggestions are all ways to make it stand out amid the feces-filled cruise ship that is the other 23.5 hours of daily CNN programming.
- Don’t have the same people host every day. Instead, build a stable of regular hosts with important specialized backgrounds in particular areas, like security, international news (but different reporters who specialize in different parts of the world!), economics, health care, science, civil liberties, the law, and of course politics. “Crossfire” suffered tremendously from its relentlessly political nature, and from the fact that each show consisted of two political operatives masquerading as journalists asking vapid questions because they didn’t know enough to go deeper into a subject. People have debates about Things That Are Not Politics, and even Things That Are Politics are sometimes better examined by reporters with more specific knowledge who can ask smarter and more challenging questions.
- Book people who are actually knowledgeable about things. Basically, think to yourselves, “Is this the kind of superficial but loud and colorful moron we would book on our other shows?” If the answer is “no,” book them. Amercia doesn’t need to hear political mouthpieces shout talking points over each other for a half hour, because we already get plenty of that. People who know what they’re talking about, really know what they’re talking about, are dangerously underrepresented on cable news. This is kind of a problem. Be part of the solution.
- Drop the ridiculous adherence to “left” vs. “right.” Some issues don’t fit so neatly into that box, you know? You could have a science debate! Or one on civil liberties! These things tend not to divide nicely along Democrat-Republican lines, but they are still interesting and worth debating, and people who watch might be better informed! What about a debate about the Republican Party’s future with thoughtful guests who both happen to be Republicans? That is something you could do if you stopped insisting that every single fucking issue has to have an opinion on The Right and an opinion on The Left and that these are the two approved views that can be debated.
- Let the guests talk to each other. If you’re booking interesting people who have something important to say about the topic, then maybe instead of Guy from The Right grilling one of them and Guy from the Left grilling the other, you could let the two of them (or three? four? there’s literally an infinite number of possibilities here) talk to each other? Imagine Paul Ryan on your show with an actual economist, having his budget challenged by said economist AND the sharp economic journalists you’ve got doing the questioning! Wouldn’t that be more compelling than “area journalist asks questions that allow Paul Ryan to spout rehearsed talking points until the next commercial break”? OK, you can’t imagine that, because Paul Ryan would never agree to go on a show like that, but you know what? Who cares! Paul Ryan is already on TV too fucking much!
- Talk about something other than the Burning Headlines of the Day. Make the show about uncovering stories that aren’t getting a lot of play, or getting deeper into the details of stories that are only getting the usual inch-deep cable news treatment. Maybe it’s even OK to discuss stuff that is happening Somewhere on Earth Other Than America, and that doesn’t even involve America directly! Sometimes this focus on more in-depth discussion may mean that you have to cancel the show to continue with live coverage of breaking news or whatever. That’s OK! It’s better than throwing from some horrific tragedy to your political clown show, where political clowns from The Left and The Right will politicize said tragedy by repeatedly accusing The Other Side of politicizing it.
(A lot of this, now that I’ve written it, sounds like what the network Sunday shows should be, if they booked interesting guests, had smarter moderators, fired all the hacks, and stopped catering to the insular idiocy of Washington.)
Failing any of this, I have one last idea: turn the whole thing into Pundit Hunger Games but in reverse. You have a series of tournaments throughout the year. At the end of each show your audience calls, texts, iReports, twits, emails, Facebooks, sends smoke signals, or whatever the hell people do to contact you anymore, to say which pundit they thought won that day’s debate. The vote winner is safe, but the loser must then continue on to debate the loser of some other day’s show, and on and on until you determine the ultimate Crossfire Loser, America’s Worst Pundit, who will immediately be banned from ever commenting publicly about anything again, forever.