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.”