Listening to Jon Stewart helped destroy CNN. Now imitating him might be the network’s only hope of salvation.
It was October of 2004, the heat of the presidential campaign, when Stewart showed up on “Crossfire,” long CNN’s flagship political program, and delivered a now-legendary tirade.
“Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America,” he told the hosts, Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson. He called them “political hacks.” He accused them of “helping the politicians and the corporations.” He compared their show to a professional wrestling match. “You’re doing theater,” he said, “when you should be doing debate.”
As it turned out, CNN was paying attention. Within two months, “Crossfire” was canceled, and the network’s president, Jon Klein, cited Stewart’s tirade as a tipping point. “I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise,” Klein said. Henceforward, he announced, CNN would move away from “head-butting debate shows.” Let FOX and MSNBC have their “live guests” and “spirited debate.” CNN was going to report, not editorialize.
Six years later, CNN is still the network Americans turn to when an earthquake strikes Haiti or a crucial health care vote takes place. But most days are slow news days, opinionated journalism is more interesting than the elusive quest for perfect objectivity and CNN is getting absolutely murdered in the ratings.
It was bad before this year; now it’s terrible. CNN’s prime-time hosts have lost almost half their viewers in the last 12 months. In February, the once-proud network slipped behind not only Fox News and MSNBC, but HLN (its sister network) and CNBC as well. Anderson Cooper sometimes gets beaten by re-runs of Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown.”
People at CNN see themselves as victims of a polarized political culture — and to some extent, they are. But high-minded self-pity only gets you so far. At a media event in Washington recently, I watched a CNN producer try to persuade a gaggle of skeptical right-wing journalists that the network’s hosts really are objective. (“You’d be surprised how some of them vote!”) Even if they were, it wouldn’t matter. The disinterested anchorman pose worked when TV news ran for 30 minutes every night at 6 p.m. It doesn’t work across hours and hours of prime time, with Campbell Brown blurring into John King blurring into Wolf Blitzzzzzz... .
What might work, instead, is a cable news network devoted to actual debate. For all the red-faced shouting, debate isn’t really what you get on Fox and MSNBC. Hannity has ditched Colmes, and conservatives are only invited on Rachel Maddow’s show when they have something nasty to say about Republicans. There’s room, it would seem, for a network where representatives from the right and left can both feel comfortable, and compete on roughly equal terms. Sort of like they did on ... “Crossfire.”
But not the “Crossfire” of 2004. CNN overreacted to Jon Stewart’s jeremiad, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. The show was years removed from its Michael Kinsley/Pat Buchanan glory days, and its liberal hosts at the time, Begala and James Carville, really were Democratic Party hacks. (The conservatives, Carlson and Robert Novak, were much more independent-minded, but the constant need to rebut partisan talking points took its toll on them as well.)
What cable news needs, instead, is something more like what Stewart himself has been doing on “The Daily Show.” Instead of bringing in the strategists, consultants and professional outrage artists who predominate on other networks, he ushers conservative commentators into his studio for conversations that are lengthy, respectful and often riveting. Stewart’s series of debates on torture and interrogation policy, in particular — featuring John Yoo and Marc Thiessen, among others — have been more substantive than anything on Fox or MSNBC.
Even the thrust-and-parry sessions of “The Daily Show,” though, are limited by the left-right binary that divides and dulls our politics. They’re better than the competition, but they don’t give free rein to eccentricity and unpredictability, or generate arguments that finish somewhere wildly different than where you’d expect them to end up. This is what you find in the riveting television debates of the past: William F. Buckley versus Gore Vidal, Vidal versus Norman Mailer, anything involving Ross Perot. And it’s what you get from the mad, compulsively watchable Glenn Beck, who’s an extremist without being a knee-jerk partisan: You know he’s way out there on the right somewhere, but you don’t know what he’s going to say next.
Stewart, Buckley, Beck ... none of these are exactly the models that you’d expect “the most trusted name in news” to look to for inspiration. And some CNN suits have probably never even heard of Gore Vidal.
But television is a business. And when you’re losing to re-runs, you’ve got nothing to lose.
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