The Corner

Blaming Jon Stewart Cont’d

From a reader:

Sadly, Stewart was right, but the decision was wrong.

From your inside position, you may know at what level, if any, Klein was involved with devolution of Crossfire from a serious debate show, with thoughtful columnists from both sides, to what it had become that Stewart rightly lit into: a stage for party flacks like Carville and Begala to posture and mug for a live audience. There was a world of difference between the Crossfire of old and the monstrosity that was mercifully put to sleep. It was CNN’s attempt to copy what it ignorantly thought was the successful dynamic of Fox, and it was a disater that ruined a great show.

As an aside, I’ve noticed how these types of debate shows, including the pundit segments on straighter news programming like Lehrer’s News Hour, often pit reasonable, often conciliatory conservatives in tension with the GOP (Tucker Carlson, David Brooks, Rich Lowry) against an unforgiving DNC mouthpiece (Carville, Begala, Mark Shields) who never concedes an inch. Always a painful experience to sit through on any channel.

I made a similar point a few years ago when Robert Novak was suspended from CNN for using bad language. An excerpt:

This all illuminates the rot in cable-news political discourse. I had a contract with CNN for about four years, which meant I was obliged to be on call for the usual five-minute mini-debates that are a staple on all the news networks. Before that, I committed similar punditry on Fox and MSNBC. On all the networks, but I think particularly on CNN, there’s a habit of pairing opinion journalists with “political consultants”—i.e., party mouthpieces and activists.

I hate the practice because it makes it almost impossible to argue in good faith. I disagree with the Bush administration on a wide number of issues—from immigration policy and “compassionate conservatism” to its grotesque overspending. But it’s very hard to offer a balanced defense when your opponent is shouting that you’re a whore to the GOP and that Bush is a liar with his pants on fire.

Take, for example, what was once CNN’s flagship political program. From 2000 until its recent demise, Crossfire featured Novak and Tucker Carlson on the right vs. Paul Begala and Carville (and before that it was Bill Press, a former Democratic Party operative). You don’t have to be fans of Novak and Carlson to see that they have jobs and backgrounds different from Begala’s and Carville’s. Both Novak and Carlson are journalists—opinion journalists, to be sure, but journalists nonetheless. They speak for nobody but themselves and they have a long-term interest in maintaining their credibility. Obviously, they have views more amenable to conservatives and Republicans, but that’s different from being on the payroll of the Republican party. For example, Novak never supported the Iraq war and Carlson doesn’t now.

Carville and Begala, meanwhile, are party operatives and always have been. They were even advisers to the Kerry campaign while still keeping their “analyst” jobs at CNN.

Crossfire was cancelled by CNN’s new president, Jonathan Klein, because he thought it was just “a bunch of guys screaming at each other” and did “nothing to illuminate the issues of the day.” Klein was right, but whose fault was that?

In the fallout of the Novak outburst, Klein defended Carville’s jibes at Novak, saying they were completely within bounds. That’s all too true. But guess who defines the bounds?

This is a bipartisan point. CNN and the other networks pair GOP hacks and mouthpieces against liberal journalists all the time, too. As I was told more than once, one of the chief complaints producers had when they put conservative and liberal journalists on was that there was “too much agreement.”

Of course, there are plenty of pundits who are in the tank for the Republicans or the Democrats. But as a general rule, the pundits tend to believe they’re doing their jobs by offering their views in good faith. Party flacks by definition define a job well done as making their boss’s case.