Monday, April 5, 2010

Helpful Advice for CNN

Ross Douthat has some advice for CNN: emulate Jon Stewart, especially since he’s the one who killed off Crossfire.

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.

Let’s correct a few misconceptions here. Not that I’m in the business of defending MSNBC (full disclosure: I went to high school with MSNBC president Phil Griffin), but Mr. Douthat, while he’s entitled to his opinion of the role that conservatives fill on Rachel Maddow, is mistaken. She has interviewed a lot of conservatives who do not have something “nasty” to say about the GOP; indeed, she’s had some pretty legendary debates with them. (Just to keep the record straight, Keith Olbermann is the one who has the conservatives who only bash other conservatives.) Add to that the number of conservatives that appear on Morning Joe, Hardball, and The Ed Show, and it’s a hell of a lot more than just one or two, and certainly more than the liberal Weebles that pop up on Fox.

That said, it seems to be a waste of time to convince Mr. Douthat of much since his idea of juicing things up in political debate is to emulate Glenn Beck.

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.

I think you get the idea how devoid of thought the right wing has gotten when you’re comparing William F. Buckley, the father of the modern conservative movement, in the same paragraph as Glenn Beck, who resembles the urine-soaked homeless guy on the corner of Biscayne Boulevard and NE 15th Street who screams about socialism and the voices in his head. (Oh, but “he’s just an extremist without being partisan.”)

CNN has already begun to get edgy with the hiring of Erik Erikson, the blogger who famously referred to Supreme Court Justice David Souter as a “goat-fucking child molester.” Let’s see how that works out for them.

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