Outrageous Fortune

Mike Kinsley defends Crossfire, challenges Fortune, and delivers the mail.

Outrageous Fortune

What a coincidence! The Feb. 2 issue of Fortune magazine initiates a feature called the “Fortune 40.” It is, of all things, a list of the 40 Americans who, by the magazine’s calculation, gave the most to charity last year. No doubt the editors of Fortune were completely unaware of a remarkably similar feature, the “Slate 60,” which this magazine has been publishing at intervals for a year and a half. (Fortune published an unbranded list of 25 a year ago.)

To be sure, the whole idea of a list of the biggest givers originated with Ted Turner, vice chairman of Time Warner, which publishes Fortune. And of course it’s a variant on the venerable Fortune 500 list of biggest corporations (via the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, the Animal Husbandry Quarterly 375 list of most prolific rodents, and so on). Still, we did get there first. If Fortune couldn’t resist ripping us off, a bit of credit might have been nice.

Fortune’s list is on the Web, but we’re not even going to link to it. So there. Our Slate 60 list from 1996 plus a couple of interim updates are here. Our Slate 60 for 1997 will be out next month: 50 percent more charity than the Fortune 40.

Hot Mail

A couple of minidialogues in “E-Mail to the Editors” are worth calling to your special attention. Paul Cameron, originator of the statistic (publicized by virtue expert William Bennett) that gay males have an average life expectancy of 43 years, defends and explains his calculation in response to a Slate article by Walter Olson debunking it. Olson redebunks right back.

And the editor of BusinessWeek, Stephen Shepard, responds to a recent Slate column by Paul Krugman criticizing an essay by Shepard in BusinessWeek about the “New Economy.” Anyone who follows Krugman at all will not be surprised to know that Paul responds, unrepentant (except for having misspelled Shepard’s name, which we guess is our fault too. Sorry, Steve). In fact, Shepard and Krugman have been going at it in e-mail since the exchange we published, and it’s pretty darned interesting. We’re working on persuading them to let us share the subsequent mail messages with you as well.

In Defense of Crossfire

The editor claims a few cyberinches of this column, on a point of privilege, to defend his former employer.

Geraldine Ferraro’s resignation as co-host of Crossfire, to run for the Senate from New York, has occasioned the usual pokes at CNN’s nightly political interview-cum-debate program. In just the past few days’ New York Times, Walter Goodman characterized Crossfire as “the CNN shout show,” and Maureen Dowd summarized Ferraro’s duties as “blathering night after night with political hacks.”

As co-host of Crossfire for six and a half years (1989-1995), I am familiar with the rap: It’s uncivilized, it’s just show biz, it’s not serious, you all talk at the same time, no one gets to finish a sentence, Pat Buchanan is a monster, Bob Novak is a monster, John Sununu makes me ill (and they hear similar complaints, apparently, about the liberal hosts). In the family of political talk shows, Crossfire is considered the ne’er-do-well cousin. In my Crossfire days, I was patronized even by Sam Donaldson.

Crossfire deserves more respect. To start, it is honest in a way the other shows are not. Virtually all the political talk shows require journalists to adopt one of two dishonest postures: agnosticism or omniscience. On traditional Q&A shows like Meet the Press, journalists must pretend that they are neutral observers who have no opinion about the subject at hand. This is not only dishonest, but it also limits their ability to frame sharp questions and to pursue evasive answers. On opinion-spouting shows like The McLaughlin Group, by contrast, journalists (often the same journalists) are free to have a point of view. Indeed, they are required to have, or to pretend to have, a passionate and fully informed viewpoint on every subject that comes along. How many of those opining solemnly on the Indonesian financial crisis this past week know (or care) squat about Indonesian finance?

Crossfire’s basic fuel is the tendentious question. As a host, you needn’t pretend to be impartial or pretend to be all-knowing. This is more honest, and it’s also more effective in getting at the truth. Or at least, that is the premise of Anglo-American jurisprudence, which uses the same model. (For the neutral-interrogator approach, try France.) One thing this method is not is easy. Walter Goodman smirks in the Times that Ferraro’s Crossfire job was “no doubt profitable and not arduous as these things go.” But it’s a heckuva lot more arduous to conduct, in effect, a nationally televised cross-examination than to spend night after night droning, “So Ms. A, what do you have to say about what Mr. B just said?”

Talk-show guests these days often have had formal training in how to avoid answering questions, and every 3-year-old knows how to deliver a prepackaged sound bite. Guests are less likely to get away with that on Crossfire than on any other show. Crossfire hosts not only are freer to ask more pointed questions, but they’re also free to point out that a guest hasn’t answered them, to follow up two or three or four times, and ultimately either to extract an answer or to make vividly clear that the guest is ducking.

There is not nearly as much shouting on Crossfire as its reputation would suggest. But the show does get cacophonous, sometimes to the point of making the discussion unintelligible. That’s not on purpose. It’s the price of Crossfire’s approach. The opposite approach has a price, too. Other interview shows may retain a smoother veneer of Socratic dialogue, but the emphasis on maintaining a civilized atmosphere actually dulls the intellectual rigor of the discussion. Many politicians who are regulars on the other shows decline to appear on Crossfire, blaming the shouting. It’s not the shouting that scares them. It’s having to face a Pat Buchanan who will puncture their postures and snare their sound bites.

For the hosts, too, Crossfire is a more intellectually rigorous experience than the other shows–or, in a way, than print punditry. Where else does a pundit face one or more people dedicated to demolishing his or her arguments on the spot and making him or her look like a fool? Not on The McLaughlin Group, where opinions are flung into the Mixmaster and issues race by like movie credits. Not in the sedate and agreeable discussions on Washington Week in Review. And not in the pages of the New York Times, where you may opine away with nothing more immediate to fear than a distant letter to the editor or, at worst, a politely dissenting op-ed piece.

To be sure, Crossfire can be aggravating. There’s the strain of finding something to argue about in every big news event, the artifice of dividing every controversy into two sides labeled “left” and “right.” There are the many points of argument and fact that flit past undigested. And of course, there’s the “overtalk” (the producers’ term for two, three, or four people talking at once). Like all these shows, Crossfire often falls for spin, serves the establishment, legitimizes phonies, and in general misses the point completely. But it’s no worse than the others, and in some ways it’s better.

Anyone wanna argue with that?

–Michael Kinsley