05:55 AM Apr 07, 2010
It was in October of 2004, during the heat of the US presidential campaign, when Jon Stewart (the host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show) showed up on Crossfire, CNN's long-standing flagship political programme, and delivered a now-legendary tirade."Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America," he told Crossfire hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson. He called them "political hacks". He accused them of "helping the politicians and the corporations". He compared their show to a professional wrestling match. "You're doing theatre when you should be doing debate," he said.
As it turned out, CNN was paying attention. Within two months, Crossfire was cancelled, with network president Jon Klein citing Stewart's tirade as a tipping point.
"I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart's overall premise," Mr Klein said. Henceforward, he announced, CNN would move away from "head-butting debate shows". Let Fox and MSNBC have their "live guests" and "spirited debate". CNN was going to report, not editorialise.
Big mistake.Six years later, CNN is still the network which Americans turn to when an earthquake strikes Haiti or a crucial health care vote takes place. But most days are slow news days, opinionated journalism is more interesting than the elusive quest for perfect objectivity, and CNN is getting absolutely murdered in the ratings. CNN's prime-time hosts have lost almost half their viewers in the last 12 months.
In February, the once-proud network slipped behind not only Fox News and MSNBC, but HLN (its sister network) and CNBC as well. People at CNN see themselves as victims of a polarised political culture - and to some extent, they are. But high-minded self-pity only gets you so far.
At a media event in Washington recently, I watched a CNN producer try to persuade a gaggle of sceptical right-wing journalists that the network's hosts really are objective. Even if they were, it wouldn't matter. The disinterested anchorman worked when TV news was 30 minutes a night at 6pm. It doesn't work across hours and hours of prime time, with Campbell Brown blurring into John King blurring into Wolf Blitzzzzzz ...
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. 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 lament, but he wasn't entirely wrong. What cable news needs, instead, is something more like what Jon 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 have been more substantive than anything on Fox or MSNBC.
However, even the thrust-and-parry sessions of The Daily Show are limited by the left-right binary that divides and dulls our politics. They don't give free rein to eccentricity and unpredictability, or generate arguments that finish somewhere wildly different than where you'd expect them to end up. This is what you find in riveting television debates of the past, like the televised debate in August 1968 between ideological enemies author-activist William F Buckley and playwright-novelist Gore Vidal at the Democratic National Convention, with 10 million people watching.
Stewart, Buckley ... not exactly the models you'd expect "the most trusted name in news" to look to for inspiration. Some CNN suits have probably never even heard of Gore Vidal.
But ultimately, television is a business. And when you're losing out to reruns, you've got nothing to lose.
The writer is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times and a film critic for National Review.