September 10, 2013

When CNN moved up the debut edition of its re-launch of famed cable-polemics show “Crossfire,” it foresaw a momentous contribution to the Syria debate. “It’s safe to say that ‘Crossfire’ will be an excellent forum to have this conversation,” CNN Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist told the Erik Wemple Blog after the network changed the program’s start date from Sept. 16 to Sept. 9.

Or, if last night’s kickoff was any indication, a mushy and muddled forum to have this conversation.

As its title and host roster indicate, “Crossfire” is a format designed to facilitate partisan/ideological confrontation. Right-leaning hosts Newt Gingrich and S.E. Cupp will face off with left-leaning hosts Stephanie Cutter and Van Jones on an alternating basis, with guests on hand to round out the babble. Lest anyone pass ignorant of the hosts’ place in American political pugilism, they’re careful about issuing reminders. In last night’s show on Syria strikes, Cutter signed off by saying, “From the left, I’m Stephanie Cutter.” Gingrich: “From the right, I’m Newt Gingrich.”

Gingrich (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

But any hopes of a nice, clean right-left showdown disappeared in the particulars of the Syria mess. Sure, there were some points of disagreement during the hosts’ discussion with Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee. They discussed the new wrinkles in the debate — the possibility of a diplomatic solution, that is — as well as the red line and Congress’s role in authorizing the initiation of overseas hostilities. At times the banter got a bit intense. But take away the show’s title and its legacy of hostile posturing, and the proceedings felt like any old cable- or network-news talkfest.

That is no great surprise. The absence of a clear party-line feel to the “Crossfire” debate mirrored the absence of a clear party-line feel to the congressional debate, where skeptical Democrats and Republicans have teamed up to frustrate the Obama administration’s interventionist appetites.

The show ended with a “Ceasefire” moment, when Cutter and Gingrich talked about their common ground on Syria — namely, the possibility of a negotiated solution to the crisis. “We both agree that today’s development, with Russia, is a great development,” said Cutter.

Put that civilized coda together with the deliberative, measured content that preceded it, and a strategy suggests itself: CNN is attempting to graft thoughtful news programming onto a meatheaded legacy. After all, CNN has signaled that it wants the show to be more “substantive” than a typical shoutfest. “They are tired of cheap debate, but they are hungry for deep debate,” host Van Jones told Variety about the needs of CNN’s viewers.

On the one hand, a show named “Crossfire,” with hosts that identify themselves by ideology. On the other, a yearning for substantive debate. That’s the crossfire within “Crossfire” and it may well be more entertaining than the debates on “Crossfire.” The Erik Wemple Blog’s best guess: Give this crowd a few weeks, and the lofty ideals will recede, yielding to nastiness, crosstalk and good ratings.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.