The New Crossfire Reveals How Dumb the Rest of Cable TV Has Become

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 13 2013 8:06 PM

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.

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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.

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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.

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