Caught in the Crossfire

It isn’t perfect, but CNN’s new Crossfire shows how much dumber cable TV has become since it went off the air.

Van Jones and Newt Gingrich on CNN's Crossfire.
Newt Gingrich takes on Vladimir Putin, and all comers, on the new Crossfire, with Van Jones at left.

Courtesy of CNN/YouTube

The first episode of the relaunched Crossfire ran on Monday, a week ahead of schedule, with a discussion about Syria immediately pronounced “awkward.” On Tuesday an important-looking crowd of Washingtonians crowded inside and around the Carnegie Library in downtown D.C. to fete the show, ordering drinks and trying to eavesdrop above the din of that night’s episode—more about Syria, this time with the expertise of Rick Santorum.

I found myself in a sort of receiving line for Newt Gingrich, the star of night one and the biggest name in the Crossfire team. Its other members are Obama/Kerry campaign veteran Stephanie Cutter, author and pundit S.E. Cupp, and onetime “green jobs czar” Van Jones—Gingrich is the only white guy on a series where that used to be a requirement for hosting. “So many people wanted to be part of the new Crossfire,” said CNN President Jeff Zucker from the party’s stage. Gingrich still sounded surprised to be part of it.

“You thought it went well? Good!” he said. “It was a little bit challenging to do it on breaking news the first night.”

It probably was, and—here comes the twist—it almost worked! Crossfire is not supposed to work. Eight years ago, when the old Crossfire was canceled, it felt like a ritual sacrifice to the gods of taste. The ax came down months after Jon Stewart effectively trolled then-host Tucker Carlson, begging him (and a bystanding Paul Begala) to “stop hurting America” with “partisan hackery.” CNN’s president at the time, Jonathan Klein, basically endorsed the Stewart theory. His network would concentrate on “storytelling” and step away from “head-butting debate shows.” Maybe they were hurting America.

Stewart’s total victory turned him into the country’s most powerful media critic, deriding the cable channels every week, counting Emmys every year. Given how much material he still culls from the cable shows, maybe Crossfire wasn’t the problem. Fast-moving political news and punditry in general tend toward stupidity. When the old Crossfire failed, it failed because the “classic” format—30 minutes of debate on one subject—was mutilated into something more like the rest of cable TV. (Disclosure: I am a paid contributor to MSNBC.)

The new Crossfire returns to a format that no one has seen, or pined for, in more than a decade. The darkened studio eschews the buttons and infographics of other shows. It evokes the unforgiving phantom zone where Michael Kinsley used to spar with John Sununu, putting nothing onscreen except a human head or a smaller head reacting to what he just heard. The focus on single subjects is like little else on cable, except for MSNBC’s package of two-hour weekend shows hosted by the data-focused Steve Kornacki and Melissa Harris-Perry.

Starting off with the Syria story might not have been ideal, but it succeeded in one sense—it utterly scrambled the right-left gimmick. The debut episode featured Sen. Rand Paul debating Sen. Bob Menendez, with the Republican making the case against intervention. “We’ve seen priests beheaded by the Islamic rebels on the other side,” said Paul. “I don’t suggest that we’re going to be allies with al-Qaida,” said Menendez. Decent and fitfully surprising TV, with lots of time for the guests to box each other in.

There could have been more boxing from the hosts. Gingrich’s odd skill as a TV pundit is well-known to anyone who endured the 2012 campaigns. He was at his best in debates—CNN-hosted debates, actually—where he worked off the cuff and flashed with anger. No one ever came up with a better slam on Mitt Romney’s descriptions of himself than Gingrich did with “pious baloney.”

The 2013 Crossfire edition of Gingrich is more polite, but still delightfully high on himself. He’s the host most likely to stumble into a hard break, trying to cram in one last point. “I think that probably the Russians look at the vote count in the House and thought, ‘Why wait until the Congress stops him?’ ” he said Monday, puzzling out Vladimir Putin’s role in Syria.

On Thursday, already more comfortable in his role, Gingrich reacted to Putin’s New York Times op-ed with a long riff on how risible the Russian president was. “Putin is unworthy of being insulted by senators who wanted to vomit, congressmen who were insulted,” he said. “Look, Vladimir Putin is honestly and obviously a KGB operative. The idea that we would take his statements seriously? You can go through that document at every single stage and find out it’s a lie. We don’t need to respect his views; we don’t need to respect his opinions, and frankly we should laugh at him.”

Those are the ingredients for good TV. Nobody on the screen used it. Van Jones, that night’s liberal, waved a piece of paper over Gingrich as if the former House speaker was an overheating boiler. That’s Crossfire’s problem so far, a mismatch of debating partners and too much of a lean toward friendliness. Jones, who spent months being pilloried by Glenn Beck as an angry communist, tries to emit nothing but sunshine and cute analogies. Obama’s Syria strategy was “a messy kitchen,” he said Thursday, “but the cake might be yummy!” Later, when he tried to compare the president to Peyton Manning, guest and conservative foreign policy thinker Danielle Pletka laughed until Jones dropped the comparison.

Cutter’s got a different problem: She’s the only member of the team still in campaign mode. To be fair, we’ve never seen her in any other mode. Cutter’s celebrity was nurtured during the 2012 Obama campaign with a series of Web videos and TV hits, hard-won TV hits, TV hits that other advisers wanted so badly they talked to reporters about them. Cutter relies heavily on the TV tricks of laughing at the ridiculousness of what she just heard and pausing. At odd. Intervals to make. A point.  

The result, in the two Cutter-Gingrich shows aired so far, is that a conservative who sounds like he’s invested in the topic is paired with a Democrat who just wants the president to win. On Wednesday’s show Cutter repeatedly and ineffectively tried to wring some contrition out of Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Republican seen as so HD-ready that the party let her lead the last debate on an abortion bill. On Crossfire, Blackburn’s only job was to paint the president as confused. “He’s still wavering between military and diplomatic solutions,” she said.

“Why can’t you do both?” asked Cutter. “Where is your leadership moment on this?” Blackburn ignored the questions, and called the president weak again. “Bringing Assad to his knees and Russia to the table is acting weak?” asked Cutter. “That’s not a strong act?”

Cutter’s Obama-boosting is the part of the new Crossfire that most invokes the bad old Crossfire. S.E. Cupp, at 34 the youngest of the new hosts, is both the most natural and the best at using the one-subject format to ask new questions. On Tuesday, as Santorum made the now-familiar “Obama’s too weak” case, Cupp asked him to “help me understand how you square your conscience with not going in and ending a conflict where hundreds of thousands have died? How—how are you not concerned that this will become another Rwanda?”

She didn’t get much of a chance to follow up, but I didn’t hear many conservatives asked that question. It’s so easy to root for Jon Stewart and hate Crossfire, but I view this reboot the way I view Internet news sites trying to fund “longform” journalism. OK, we admit that everyone’s attention is ruined; let’s see if we can remember how to think at length.