In the small-victory department, the premiere of “Crossfire” didn’t produce the kind of cross-talk squabbling apt to give “The Daily Show” fodder to tee off on the CNN revival — yet, anyway. Still, just based on the look, style and graphics, it’s hard to escape a feeling the news network is aping the format of ESPN’s round-table-type afternoon discussion shows — only here, chewing over possible military action in Syria instead of trade deadlines and the baseball or NFL playoff picture.
Stephanie Cutter and Newt Gingrich — half of the show’s left-right hosting nexus, along with Van Jones and S.E. Cupp — launched the franchise Monday by hosting two U.S. senators, Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). Neither was what you would call a natural in the hosting role, underscoring the difference between guesting as a talking head and actually having to function as a TV personality.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Cutter was the more aggressive interviewer in pressing Paul on his resistance to U.S. strikes in Syria, while the former Speaker of the House, Gingrich, seemed uncharacteristically restrained. Usually a vociferous critic of the media (including, it should be noted, CNN), Gingrich came across as more sarcastic than anything else, while letting Menendez provide what in TV terms were unusually long, uninterrupted answers.
Frankly, the fast-moving nature of news surrounding Syria — including Russia’s possible intercession to defuse the situation — somewhat clouded the conversation, and left the four finding common ground on certain points. “Even though I know this is supposed to be ‘Crossfire,’ maybe we can all agree” on the advantage of having Russia intervene, Paul said, almost apologetically. (Helpfully, he also kept sipping from his big “CNN” mug.)
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with trying to bring the give-and-take of the Sunday-morning talk shows to a CNN weekday lineup hungry for attention-getting programs. Still, everything about the presentation of “Crossfire” suggests despite the commitment to an evenhanded approach, this is more about showbiz than politics — policy debate as verbal wrestling.
In what amounts to an attempt, perhaps, to turn down the partisan heat a few degrees, the show closed with a segment titled “Ceasefire,” in which the two hosts — while still sniping — sought to find an area of agreement.
The new “Crossfire” will clearly need some time to work out the kinks, finding a balance between keeping the discourse civil and producing enough fireworks to make the exchanges entertaining, if not especially newsworthy. Even so, the show shouldn’t have much trouble attracting newsmakers, and there’s no debating the central part of the equation — namely, nothing on TV is cheaper than four people sitting around and arguing.