Monday, April 05, 2010

How to Save CNN

Um... paraphrasing Ross Douthat... Let's see... Jon Stewart made fun of Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala for their part in turning Crossfire into a bad show, and CNN responded by firing them. But Crossfire was once a better show, so CNN should bring it back - because objectivity is boring and CNN needs more head-butting editorializing. But not "red-faced shouting" because that's not debating. They need the type of head-butting they did on Crossfire back when Jon Stewart embarrassed them. Only in your dreams will you see Pat Buchanan back in the host's chair (glory days... well, they'll pass you by) and, as high minded as he is, poor widdle Tucker Carlson gets all worn down by responding to the other side's talking points.

But you know what was great - truly wonderful, high-minded debate? Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. But without the partisanship. So maybe William F. Buckley, Jr. versus Gore Vidal. Because nothing is as high-minded as seeing Vidal call Buckley a "pro crypto Nazi" (I still don't know what that is), or seeing Buckley threaten to sock Gore Vidal in his "goddamn face" and call him a "queer". Discourse just doesn't get better or more elevated than that.

To Vidal's credit (cough), he later indicated that he should have said "fascist-minded" instead of "pro crypto Nazi", but would that have been calling Buckley a liberal? Can you take this much high-mindedness in a single dose?

Ah, but Buckley's not available, so who could possibly step into his shoes. Other than John Stewart, who we've previously ruled out for recognizing that there's a political divide in this country. Who is the obvious heir to somebody like Buckley, who certainly would never have tried to divide the country by politics. There's only one possible person who comes to mind - a person whose high-mindedness and entertaining brand of nonpartisanship would do nothing but shoot CNN's ratings through the roof! You guessed it - Glenn Beck. Jon Stewart's ability to debate and interview, crossed with Beck's ability to be "lengthy, respectful and often riveting", even if, um, only when hosting "conservative commentators". Maybe it would look like this:

Pair Beck with Gore Vidal, and you've got a real ratings winner! Or if Vidal's not available, Ross Perot! Anything involving Ross Perot is a winner!

I'm not going to say that Douthat's completely wrong. He's correct that CNN's formula isn't working. He's correct that there's a shortage of "real debate" on television. Pretty much everything else he writes, though, is nonsense. Despite his pretense that he wants to move away from political partisanship in favor of some other flavor of partisanship - people clashing over controversial ideas, but leaning back in their chairs when insulting each other or threatening fisticuffs - he seems to view conservative commentators through a lens that transforms them into non-partisans, while being quick with the ad hominem toward anybody on the left (other than Gore Vidal).

One of Douthat's more ridiculous sneers is directed at Rachel Maddow, who he accuses of only inviting conservatives on her show "when they have something nasty to say about Republicans." I don't watch her show, but even I know better than that. Is his problem that he isn't watching and chose to make stuff up? If Maddow has difficulty booking conservative guests, it goes back to one of the hallmark failures of modern talk TV - if the host makes a guest look bad, the guest will refuse to come back and will tell all his friends not to do the show - or maybe even to boycott the entire network. Most guests prefer only to go on shows where they can expect to be tossed not just softball questions, but marshmallows.

But when you're reading an essay that effectively argues, "CNN should hire somebody like Glenn 'Been There, Didn't Do That' Beck to revive its ratings," and works its way up to the dig, "And some CNN suits have probably never even heard of Gore Vidal", perhaps you shouldn't expect much.

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