Shout-Fests Are Good for America

January 23, 2005|MICHAEL KINSLEY

Hungry for an issue that will unite us rather than divide us, Americans have settled on a loathing of television shows that divide us rather than unite us. The best known (though it has had lower ratings recently than its unpronounceable competitor on Fox News, "Hannity and Colmes") of these so-called "shout-fests" is CNN's "Crossfire," which has now been sacrificed on the altar of bad publicity.

In October, the nation's philosopher-king, Jon Stewart, appeared on "Crossfire" and hilariously bested the show's two co-hosts on the question of "Crossfire" itself.

Stewart's performance was a bit of a cheat. He grandly begged his interlocutors to "stop hurting America," then he repelled any counterargument by retreating into his shell like a turtle and declaring that he was jes' a littl' ol' comedian, boss.

As a connoisseur of evasive techniques on television interview shows (everyone needs a hobby), I didn't think there were any new ones waiting to be discovered. Boy, was I wrong.

And it worked. It seemed to touch a chord in the electronic community of political obsessives, who rose up as one to declare they hadn't watched "Crossfire" for years but were bothered by the possibility that others might be doing so. Probably no single show (or "episode," as someone once insultingly put it) of "Crossfire" has ever had as much impact on the actual course of events.

Unfortunately, the impact was that CNN canceled "Crossfire" after 23 years. Or maybe this wasn't especially unfortunate. Twenty-three years is a good run.

I used to work as a co-host of "Crossfire," and I got sick of it after six. During that time, I often heard the arguments against shout-fests. They boil down to two: First, the general level of discussion is low. Second, framing every issue as an argument corrupts the larger political discourse, which is headachy with argumentation already.

It is certainly true that if intellectual sophistication is what you're looking for, the New York Review of Books might be a better choice than the McLaughlin Group. And if, as a journalist, you want to explore and analyze an issue, the New Republic or the Los Angeles Times editorial page (two other places I have worked) are of course better forums than "Hannity and Colmes" or "Hardball."

But the conversation of democracy is conducted on multiple levels, and there is a trade-off. An article in the New Republic is a topical lotion on the body politic that may or may not penetrate down to the vital organs. An appearance on "Bill O'Reilly" is an injection straight to the heart. (To pursue this tortured analogy, decorous broadcast venues like Charlie Rose or Terry Gross' "Fresh Air" are like Lasik surgery, or maybe liposuction, or ... heck, I give up.)

The conceit that there are exactly 2.0 sides to every question, one "left" and one "right," is a genuine flaw of "Crossfire"-type shows. So is their Groundhog Day quality: The argument goes on forever, nobody's mind is ever changed. But this format has a great advantage over other variations of TV talking-head journalism in terms of intellectual honesty.

The two main variants are the "Meet the Press" format, in which journalists ask questions from a studied posture of political neutrality, and the round table such as "Capital Gang" and segments of many news shows, in which journalists spout opinions and prognostications about far more subjects than any one human being can possibly know much about.

The foundation of "Crossfire" and its imitators is the tendentious question: a question from an explicit point of view. This is liberating. You don't have to pretend that you have no opinion on the subject you're badgering a politician about, and you also don't have to pretend that you know all about some topic that had never crossed your mind until that morning's paper.

Even in its heyday, many politicians would not appear on "Crossfire." They liked to blame the shouting, but the amount of shouting was always exaggerated.

Politicians avoided "Crossfire" because they were afraid. This was a show where their techniques of evasion didn't work as well, because there were fewer decorous conventions they could hide behind. Rehearsed sound bites couldn't be avoided, even on "Crossfire," but they tended to ring hollow.

"Crossfire" didn't cause the ideological divisions in this country. It reflected them. Sometimes it reflected them so well that people got angry, and they shouted. But that anger was usually genuine. These were people doing democracy the honor of feeling deeply about it. That's not so terrible.

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