Why even Jon Stewart may not care that CNN is reviving Crossfire, the show he accused of "hurting America"
CNN announced today it would revive Crossfire -- a debate show the cable channel canceled in 2005, not long after Daily Show host Jon Stewart confronted its hosts on camera for “hurting America.”
But executives at CNN swear the new Crossfire will be different, debuting this fall in half-hour episodes, without a live audience, covering one topic per show.
As in the past, hosts are divided by political ideology, with former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and conservative columnist S.E. Cupp on the right and former Obama official Van Jones and ex-Obama campaign aide Stephanie Cutter on the left.
Astute viewers might note that CNN, like most other cable newschannels, airs televised debate is short segments throughout its broadcast day, using such exchanges to stretch out coverage of hot news stories ranging from the new immigration bill to the travails of celebrity chef Paula Deen.
Stewart said as much to me in 2007, expressing doubts that his words killed the show. "If that show hadn't been on its last legs...they weren't about to let that thing go away," he said. "I don't think it was any larger message CNN was sending...(If it was), they sent it once and decided 'let's go back to what we were doing.'"
San Feist, the newschannel's senior vice president of programming and Washington bureau chief, disagreed with Stewart's analysis, saying CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker talked about reviving the show from the moment he arrived at the cable channel in January.
“He grew up watching Crossfire…it’s a show he always felt was valuable and useful and important and I think he wondered why it wasn’t on the air,” said Feist, describing Zucker. “Honestly, he’s been talking about it from the very first day.”
Like Larry King Live, Crossfire began as a translation of a TV show. Back in 1982, journalist Tom Braden and pundit/politician Pat Buchanan served as hosts of the first edition of Crossfire, which was a televised version of a radio show the two hosted on then-WRC-AM in Washington D.C.
In October 2004, Stewart appeared on the show with hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson to promote a book. Instead, he criticized Crossfire as a haven for political hacks to trade talking points and rob the channel of airtime for news coverage, concluding “you’re doing theater when you should be doing debate.”
By January 2005, then-new U.S.-president Jon Klein had canceled the show, saying he sympathized with Stewart’s words. But Klein was let go from CNN in 2010 and Zucker has moved quickly to reshape the channel, building a 4 p.m. show around ex-ABC correspondent Jake Tapper and developing a new morning show dubbed New Day.
Feist said the new Crossfire’s intention to focus on a single topic per episode and its lack of a studio audience would make the show a more serious showcase.
“Sometimes the guests and even the hosts focus on the audience reaction sometimes more than they focus on the quality of the debate,” Feist said, noting that CNN’s refusal to champion a political side may also help distinguish the show. “It’s a discussion that is hard to hold on MSNBC and Fox because those networks are admittedly unbalanced...I think you can expect to have as much heat as light, if that makes sense.”
Below is Stewart's infamous conflict with Carlson and Begala, which has drawn 5.8 million views from a time when the term "viral video" was a new concept.