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Ramesh Ponnuru argues that a cable TV network should revive the old CNN debate show Crossfire.
The show ran for half an hour and examined one question. There were two hosts: one liberal, one conservative, both opinion journalists rather than operatives for a political party. In the early 1990s, Michael Kinsley (now a Bloomberg View columnist) and Patrick Buchanan did the job. There were two guests, usually politicians or public-policy experts on each side of the debate. There was no studio audience.
Each of these features made “Crossfire” better. The one-subject rule made it impossible for the politicians to make it through the show on sound bites alone. That both hosts were journalists made for a fairer debate than the usual practice of today’s political shows, which put journalists up against political operatives.
The show was ruined by the introduction of a hooting-and-hollering live audience and by having the left represented by Democratic hacks rather than liberal journalists. Many people blame Crossfire for the political polarization on television — think of Jon Stewart’s memorable anti-Crossfire rant — but most of the shows that have followed it have been far worse.
The format of most political shows encourages partisan point-scoring rather than intelligent discussion. As an occasional guest myself, I can think of times where I didn’t take the conventional Republican position in a given controversy but felt obliged to defend it anyway because my sparring partner — almost always a Democratic consultant — was characterizing it so unfairly.
No political debate show will ever be as good as William F. Buckley, Jr.’s Firing Line. But Crossfire is about as good as it gets with a length and format accessible to the average person.
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