The world stands on the brink of nuclear war; even a “limited” nuclear conflagration will leave 12 million dead in one of the most densely populated parts of the world. The Pakistani ambassador, seated spitting distance in front of me, is urgently, and rationally explaining in her clipped but flawless English why her country does not subscribe to a “no first strike” policy when it comes to nuclear weapons. I’m pretty damned interested at this point (heck, who am I kidding, I’m worried), so it only makes sense to cut her off in mid-sentence, thank her for her time and cut to commercial. After all, when we return from the break we’re going to hear from the U.S. Women’s soccer coach about the World Cup. As they helpfully point out on tonight’s show, I, along with 74% of the rest of America, according to USA Today, have no intention of watching any televised soccer unless more players start ripping their shirts off.
Such are the vagaries of cable television. After all I couldn’t have expected much more when I decided to attend a performance of CNN’s “Crossfire,” the long-running flagship cable news program, which since being “revamped” in April has been taped in front of a live audience in an auditorium at George Washington University in the heart of D.C. When you’re targeting the 18-49 demo, nuclear war is a real downer — at that point “Crossfire” is just a sick pun, and it takes extra reserves of fake enthusiasm to put our hands together and clap our way to commercial, despite the show’s director barking “applause, applause, applause” from the overhead speaker.
During the commercial breaks, they cut off the director’s voice and began pumping obnoxious pop music through the auditorium, which at one point results in a rather unsettling tableaux — legendary reporter and curmudgeonly “Crossfire” host Bob Novak having his makeup touched up while Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady” blares overhead.
Unfortunately, the Madonna, Moby and Creedence Clearwater Revival songs that follow aren’t enough to drown out the other co-host for the evening, Paul Begala, yet another Clinton-turnspit-cum-journalist. Throughout the breaks, Begala banters incessantly with the audience with such nervous enthusiasm that it seems to belie a desperate need for affection (e.g., “So how many members of the Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership group are here tonight?” and before taping an intro segment “I’ve got to suck up to Lou Dobbs for a minute. You have not seen me kiss ass until you’ve seen me kiss up to Lou Dobbs.”)
However, I suppose Begala’s clumsy attempts at interaction are the point. According to CNN Senior Executive Producer Sam Feist in a press release: “‘Crossfire’ is an unpredictable show, it should be unpredictable, and to be in front of a studio audience adds a degree of unpredictability. The audience adds life to any program because of their participation.”
Especially when that element of unpredictability is contrived by a TV producer. For the upcoming soccer segment, Begala is handed a number of balls representing different sports. He takes the football and begins hurling it into the crowd. After a few smooth passes, the ball sails back from the crowd on to the desk on stage, obliterating Bob Novak’s steaming hot coffee mug. This requires an intensive clean-up, where in addition to the coffee, the scowl also has to be wiped off of Novak’s face. But it’s hard to blame him for being annoyed; before the show we were told that disruptive audience members would be “ejected and banned from campus.” Apparently, that same rule doesn’t apply to rowdy hosts.
And if you’re a respected journalist like Novak staring peevishly at your coffee-stained tie, you’ve got to wonder just what the hell Begala and “Crossfire”‘s other new liberal co-host, James Carville, are doing on the show in the first place. Novak has been an ace reporter for decades, and the other conservative host Tucker Carlson, while comparatively inexperienced, also earned his corporal’s stripes as a print reporter. Carville and Begala have never been anything but the most partisan and shameless political operatives, hardly the sort of riffraff that the Fourth Estate used to hand over keys to the executive washroom. Begala actually refers to Clinton on air as “my boss” and Carville is such a braying jackass he might as well be the official Democratic mascot. Novak, on the other hand, while well respected in conservative circles, is still a registered Democrat and could never be accused of toeing the Republican party line. As for Carlson, he was aptly described by a New York Press writer as “a young Republican whose favorite target is older Republicans.”
Still, that’s not to say that sparks don’t fly on the new “Crossfire.” Novak and Begala do go at it quite a bit, though you get the sense that Novak’s remaining faithful to his cause simply because Begala never lets up. What’s ridiculous about the show is the mock rivalry between hosts it’s artificially cultivating on air and in particular in new promos, where the hosts are draped in boxing robes, and Bob Novak is billed as the “prince of darkness.” (Now there’s a fresh take.) They’ve even been sniping at each other in press releases with Carlson asking Carville “How do you whimper in Cajun?” and Begala referring to Carlson as “pretty boy.” It all strikes me as a pretty cheap bid for ratings.
Just like the need to have a live audience. You expect these kind of gimmicks from television executives, but it’s doubly bad they’ve managed to drag a respected academic institution into this mess. Of course the new show is invaluable PR for George Washington University, which needs to justify the existence of its new $27 million Media and Public Affairs Building. But more than that it is a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that in order to study politics, an understanding of the medium of television is a necessary evil.
And while the auditorium isn’t full, it doesn’t look like the show is going to have a problem getting tourists and GWU students to come to the tapings. Every so often a camera on a large crane sweeps precariously low, just above the crowd’s heads. Before the show we were warned about this crane, so as not to stand up suddenly. The camera takes us all in, and I spot the tiny dot in the front row that is the back of my head, on the show’s monitor.
I wait for the camera to sweep back across the crowd; I’m abnormally tall, have a hard head and a good lawyer. I figure I if sit up at just the right moment, I’ll get whacked by the camera and the ensuing lawsuit will be my first step toward financial independence.
But alas, there’s a chance I’ll get knocked cold and will miss the rest of the show. I don’t want to miss the U.S. Women’s soccer coach, who extols the virtues of soccer thusly: “If you look at soccer and the way that it’s played, whether it’s in the men’s game or the women’s game, it’s fascinating. We’re moving a ball up and down with our feet.”
Maybe this is just my ugly Americanism, but the mere thought of watching soccer makes me, along with 74 percent of the audience, begin to nod off. I check the time and realize that if I were home watching CNN, I could change the channel, perhaps over to ESPN. There’s an NBA playoff game on tonight.