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Carlson & 'Crossfire,' Exit Stage Left & Right

At CNN, a Defection and a Deletion

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2005; Page C01

CNN, which lost the services of conservative pundit Tucker Carlson to MSNBC yesterday, immediately signaled plans to get rid of his former program, "Crossfire," the 22-year-old shout show that gave birth to dozens of high-decibel cable slugfests.

CNN/U.S. President Jonathan Klein sided yesterday with comedian Jon Stewart, who used a "Crossfire" appearance last fall to rip the program as partisan hackery. "I think he made a good point about the noise level of these types of shows, which does nothing to illuminate the issues of the day," Klein said in an interview. Viewers need "useful" information in a dangerous world, he said, "and a bunch of guys screaming at each other simply doesn't accomplish that."

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CNN plans to incorporate "Crossfire" debate segments with the remaining hosts -- Democratic strategists James Carville and Paul Begala and conservative columnist Robert Novak, plus a right-leaning replacement for Carlson -- into the afternoon program "Inside Politics." The network also plans to end "Capital Gang," the long-running Saturday night panel show created by Novak, later this year.

Carlson's defection was a coup for MSNBC, which plans for him to host a nightly program in the prime 9 p.m. slot previously occupied by Deborah Norville. Carlson, 35, credited his move to MSNBC President Rick Kaplan, who first hired Carlson when he ran CNN.

"I can't wait to work for Rick Kaplan," Carlson said. "He's a great producer. I would host an infomercial if he would produce it."

Carlson, the bow-tied former Weekly Standard writer who also hosts a Friday program on PBS, was courted by NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker. He said that Klein and other CNN executives "were completely fair to me and nice to me and were doing their best to get me to stay." Asked if he would take a conservative approach on the MSNBC show, Carlson said, "I'm going to say exactly what I think is true." He will precede another conservative host, former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, on a network that dumped liberal Phil Donahue after six months.

Carlson told CNN last April that he was through as a co-host of "Crossfire" but agreed to continue while trying to negotiate a new role before his contract expired next week. He praised the show but said that he felt constrained by its left-right format and that "when my opinions diverged from those of the White House it was difficult" to conduct the expected debate, particularly when he opposed the Iraq war.

Carlson, who filled in for Aaron Brown last week on "NewsNight," had been talking to CNN executives about creating a talk show at 11 p.m., when the network now runs profitable reruns of "Lou Dobbs Tonight." Klein disputed reports that he had unsuccessfully pitched the Carlson idea to his CNN bosses in Atlanta this week.

"There was zero fit between what he wanted to do and what we wanted to do," Klein said. "He's best suited to host a head-butting talkfest, and that's not the kind of program we wanted to do in prime time. . . . Our network is about roll-up-your-sleeves journalism, powerful storytelling."

David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief, said that "Tucker is really interesting and I wish he could stay. Tucker was done with 'Crossfire' in any event and there was no place for him." Bohrman said he hoped Carville, Begala and Novak could provide more "reasoned analysis" as part of Judy Woodruff's politics show. "There was a sense that 'Crossfire' has developed into people asking each other if they still beat their wife," he said.

The combination of moves marks an aggressive start for Klein, a former CBS executive who took over CNN less than a month ago and is the latest in a series of top executives who have shuffled through its management ranks. CNN, which has provided wall-to-wall coverage of the tsunami disaster in Asia, does well during major events but has consistently trailed Fox News Channel and especially its opinionated nighttime lineup.

Launched in 1982 by Pat Buchanan and Tom Braden, "Crossfire" has had a series of high-profile hosts, from liberals Michael Kinsley, Bill Press and Geraldine Ferraro to conservatives Mary Matalin and John Sununu. The program drew criticism for allowing Carville and Begala to remain last year while they served as informal advisers to John Kerry's presidential campaign, just as it had for providing a home for Buchanan between his White House campaigns and for Matalin when she was advising George W. Bush's 2000 campaign.

The conservative-vs.-liberal debates that seemed fresh two decades ago have spread across the cable spectrum, from "Hardball" to "Hannity & Colmes," and even moving "Crossfire" to a live audience at George Washington University did little to stem its declining ratings. The show, which now averages 450,000 viewers, lost its luster when it was cut from 60 to 30 minutes and moved from its 7 p.m. slot to 4:30.

"This is no slap at Fox," Klein said of his criticism of high-volume ideological shows. "I think they do that format better than anyone. There's just so much of that format around."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company