Ramesh Ponnuru is right: Bring back ‘Crossfire’

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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A test of a man’s ideas ought to be whether or not things improve after they are implemented. John McCain fought for the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act, and it’s worth asking: Is campaign finance better today? I would argue things have gotten worse. In this regard, we might also judge Jon Stewart’s accusation that CNN’s “Crossfire” was “hurting America” as an abject failure. If anything, cable news is more vapid than ever. (Thanks, Jon.)

The good news is that Ramesh Ponnuru is out with a terrific Bloomberg column, making the case that “Crossfire” should return. He’s right, of course — not just in his fondness for the format, but also in his analysis of what went wrong (and how to fix it). The key to “Crossfire” — or one of the keys to “Crossfire” — was its balance. The show erred near the end of its run, when (as Ponnuru) points out, it pitted fair-minded journalists against political strategists who, by definition, engage in political hackery and spin.

So how might a new “Crossfire” avoid this pitfall? First, by hiring opinion journalists, and also, by noting that balance requires equal power. A liberal host and a conservative guest do not constitute balance, precisely because hosts have more power than guests. They control the means of production. Additionally, opponents must be equally matched. When Fox News created the facade of a “Crossfire”-style show, named “Hannity & Colmes,” they set up an obvious patsy. “Hannity & Olbermann” would be more fun to watch.

To the slight degree that modern cable news has attempted to co-opt the format, they have betrayed balance. Obviously, the numbers have to be equal. Having one liberal host (Bob Beckel on “The Five”) outnumbered by four conservatives — or one conservative host (S.E. Cupp on “The Cycle”) outnumbered by three liberals — is more like window dressing or tokenism than balance.

In any event, since nobody is even trying to replicate what they must perceive to be an archaic talk show model, why not give it another try try? This should be an obvious move for some aspiring network. Why doesn’t CNN just bring back (as Ponnuru suggests) something close to the original format (with younger journalists, of course)?

We know how powerful brand names are. For this reason, Hollywood keeps trotting out recycled garbage like “Land of the Lost” and “The Dukes of Hazard.” If brands matter so much, why not give this one another try?

Matt K. Lewis