CNN To Force ‘Crossfire’ Hosts To Find Common Ground


With Jon Stewart's 2004 'partisan hackery' rant still in the ether, cable-newser tries to stay true to its centrist image

CNN’s revived “Crossfire” program will still feature a host “from the right” and another “from the left,” but by the end of the show’s 30 minutes, the debaters will have to find some way to meet in the middle.

The final segment of a new relaunched version of what is arguably the Time Warner network’s best-known program will be called “Cease Fire,” said CNN Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist in remarks made to reporters Friday, and will offer “an opportunity for hosts to look for common ground at the end of the program.”

Clearly, the show may still be called “Crossfire” but CNN is eager to keep it from gunning down discourse about the important issues of the day.

When the cable-news outlet on Monday brings “Crossfire” out of a slumber that has lasted around eight years,  it will do so with the demise of its last version firmly in mind. In 2005, CNN took the long-running program off the air after a 2004 incident in which “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart appeared on the show as a guest and savaged it , saying it was “hurting America” and that its back-and-forth was nothing more than “partisan hackery.”

“You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably,” the comedian told the hosts at the time. Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.

Getting the newest edition of the program right could be critical for CNN, which has been enjoying ratings momentum under the aegis of new president Jeff Zucker, thanks to big breaking-news stories including the Boston Marathon bombings. Indeed, the network moved the launch of “Crossfire” a week earlier to Monday from its original date, September 16, to take advantage of viewer interest in the current situation in Syria and what the United States’ response to it will be.

Launch of the show, which will feature former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, conservative commentator and former MSNBC host S.E. Cupp on the “right” and political adviser Stephanie Cutter and civil-rights activist Van Jones on the “left,” could be aimed at keeping CNN more in the ratings fray in early evening, a crucial daypart that helps build audience for prime-time programming. MSNBC recently moved longtime host Ed Schultz back to a 5 p.m. time slot and Chris Matthews to 7 p.m. to build support for its evening slate.

Gingrich and Cutter will host the first edition of the new “Crossfire” on Monday, said Feist, while Cupp and Jones will host Tuesday.  The network may mix and match the on-air anchors, he said, depending upon their views on a particular topic. In recent rehearsals, he noted, not everyone argued along typical party lines on issues like Syria.

Yet those affiliations are firmly in mind.  When “Crossfire” returns, it will do so with several format changes designed to make the right-versus-left debate it has long purported to present more substantial, said Feist.

The new show will be “very different” from the last version of “Crossfire,” which aired on CNN starting in 1982. Gone is the live studio audience, Feist said, the presence of which tended to “change the level and quality of the debate a great deal. Both the hosts and the guests, I think, felt a natural inclination to play to the audience.” And in this version, he said, the hosts will focus on one topic for the length of the program, rather than jumping across multiple subjects as had been the norm.

The hosts also indicated they are committed to presenting something more substantial on “Crossfire” than hot air.

Gingrich pointed to “Crossfire’s” early days when host Bob Novak and others offered more tempered discussion of newsy topics. “Everyone who watched felt they were watching a real, genuine dialogue between passionate people who cared a lot,” he said. “That’s the standard we’re going to try and set and that’s the standard we’re going to ask you to monitor us against.” If the hosts can’t rise to the occasion, said Gingrich, “we will have failed the audience and we will have failed CNN and ourselves.”

Jones suggested modern TV-news viewers were interested in true debate, not theatrics. “They are tired of cheap debate, but they are hungry for deep debate,” he said.

Of course, this is TV. “Crossfire” will have its share of back-and-forth, said Cutter. “None of us are going to shy away from a good debate,” she said. “The difference is we will get beyond the talking points. We will get beyond the one-liners.”

The “Crossfire” relaunch tackles the question of how CNN intends to parry against Fox News and MSNBC, both of which have seen ratings surge over the years by relying on more partisan talk programs in primetime. CNN has striven to remain centrist across most of its programming, even as that stance seemed to render it a more vanilla provider of the news of the moment. By letting liberal and conservative hosts have at it so long as they sound a harmonious note at the end of the argument, the network clearly hopes to have its cake and eat it, too.

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  1. terry morris says:

    I wondered when a republican would slip up. Miss Cupp on Crossfire talking to Debbie Stabinow about Detroit and a 27 year old who’s premium will go up 150% and I beleive Ms Stabinow said It would come down and here it is! Miss Cupp says you will have to get the WHITE PEOPLE. To enroll!!!! Now we know for sure what the Republicans are really saying behind closed doors!

  2. williej says:

    I think that they should give a time limit on the answer to a question, you already know that one person takes over and leaves the other with no time

  3. Laur says:

    After watching the show I determined that Newt Gingrich, normally a good debater, was too compliant, and Stephanie Cutter was just plain annoying.

  4. Clifford Macker says:

    No more Crossfire for me!! those idiots don’t understand that when everyone talks at once they understand everything that is said because they get directional cues, but we TV viewers are totally lost in the bllur of sound because we get no directional cues. Get someone to use a cat-o-nine-tails to stop the crosstalk!!!

  5. Tom Beatty says:

    On the nights that Stephanie Cutter co-hosts, why bother to have a guest on from the right? She asks a question and immediately begins talking over them, not allowing we (the viewers) to hear the comments. She simply cannot get past her agenda and participate in an objective debate. At least Newt is courteous to the guest from the left and allows them to present their opinion. I would love to see the show go back to the original format which would pit Cutter against Gingrich on the days’ topics. Need I remind anyone how that would turn out?

  6. tim fowler says:

    Gingrich is great but his co-host is a bitch. Who she doesn’t agree with she will not let the speak unless they talk over her. She needs to go for the success of the show.

  7. Quyen says:

    We listeners don’t want partisan oneliners, we want to understand the issue in a balance and truthful debate with each side being there as valuable witness to the other side argument. I don’t see the need for common ground.

  8. Roy says:

    Hmmm… they will have to find common ground? I guess with Newt Gingrich, who rarely loses a debate, they have to make it easier for the loser lefts lame excuses to be accepted by an audience.

    • The thing about good CONSTRUCTIVE political debate is that there shouldn’t be a loser. You’re supposed to pick out bits where the two disagree, then get down to the important things that both sides agree needs to be done.

  9. Exactly.

    The desire to have their cake and eat it too is exemplified in Jeff Zucker’s recent comments regarding journalistic objectivity in the context of the re-vamp of the Crossfire program– he states: “Obviously, in a world where our competitors have made a lack of objectivity part of their strategy, which is fine, and I’m not being critical of that at all. They’ve done a very good job with that strategy… So for us, the path is objectivity. And just because you’re being objective doesn’t mean you can’t have points of view. Witness, Crossfire, okay?”

    What he suggesting here is that CNN has embraced journalistic objectivity and MSNBC and Fox News have discarded it. This actually does not adequately describe the problem, but rather is a fast and easy attempt to side-step the problem.

    The real problem is that they all care more about satiating advertisers and increasing eyeballs, than they do to the American public discourse. It ultimately has to do with the evolving markets for news in relationship to the gradual weakening of the Fairness Doctrine, specifically as it pertains to the contrast between broadcasters as community trustees versus broadcasters as marketplace participants.

    The truth of the matter is that– in the creation of Fox News, Murdoch saw a great unfulfilled market opportunity and he went for it; the weakening of the Fairness Doctrine made it possible; MSNBC later emerged as the binary market opportunity. CNN did not evolve in this context and found them self stuck, so they invented a public relations side-step that is ultimately intellectually dishonest.

    Within his statement, there is a sense in which, Jeff Zucker is attempting to suggest that objectivity involves letting both sides battle it out publicly and whoever has the best argument wins. This is not objectivity. Jeff Zucker states “being objective doesn’t mean you can’t have points of view” but, the standard definition of objectivity is “judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices.” So, in objectivity you cannot have a point-of-view.

    In journalism and real life, our emotions and our own personal prejudices are an inherent part of our point-of-view. To be objective about our own emotions and prejudices requires a moral science, which has never existed in an American context. So, the question remains– how can pull ourselves out of our reality concerning what we believe should, must and ought be in our political, social and cultural contexts? We can’t.

    In objective journalism, a journalist can only report on what someone says about reality, risk and blame.

    The cannot argue with the speaker; they have to take it all at face value and simply report. Arguing is a form of rhetoric, as it relates to persuasion and ultimately– what, should, must, ought be or is, all require some form of journalistic editorializing and advocacy.

    I have offered CNN several variations of a content and brand strategy as well as new program over the past five years; they have rejected my approach consistently because when it comes to the need to sell ads as marketplace participants, their allegiance is with advertisers, not with the public.

    This is ultimately irresponsible in the sense that we expect broadcasters to be community trustees and as Stewart suggests– to be responsible to American public discourse.

    Crossfire will once again “fail miserably”– because CNN’s top executives are trying to pull a fast one on the American public. Therefore, the arguments about “media bias” are bound to continue because no one in media has the backbone, honesty and commitment to do what is needed– which is update our own understanding of journalistic objectivity, specifically as it relates to the last ten years of discoveries in neuroscience and moral reasoning.

    Perhaps, ironically, Americas only hope is Jeff Bezos’ recent acquisition of the Washington Post. Bezos has recently commented that his commitment is toward creating news that is compelling to readers (as well as centered on readers), rather than advertisers; that’s a step in the right direction because it places journalism’s responsibly and ambitions back in to the context of “community trustee”.

    The next step would be to tackle the American understanding of moral reasoning, as it relates to “truth”.

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