CNN Under Fire

by The Macleod

The set up for CNN’s Crossfire is simple. It features four hosts, Paul Begala and James Carville “on the left” and Tucker Carlson and Robert Novak “on the right.” Respectively they represent the Democratic and Republican sides of whichever issue happens to be tackled at their roundtable. Guests appear on the show, again either Democrat or Republican, and must answer for the actions of their party’s national leaders each day under relentless grilling from the hosts. Emotions run high; the bow-tied Tucker Carlson is constantly outraged (outraged! he tells us) at the actions of any American unfortunate enough in his view to label him/herself a Democrat, Bob Novak gushes arrogance like a leaky oil tanker, and in the end little is ever resolved. Accusations of wrongdoing and corruption by the guests’ respective parties are as frequent as apologies for political gaffes are rare.

The problem with Crossfire isn’t only in its crass sensationalisation of American politics (a look at the show’s website at would lead one to believe it’s a poster for a new action movie, complete with flames in the background), but rather in its absolute bi-polarization of every issue. They bring issues to light and present their arguments in the most black and white terms possible. For Carville and Begala George W. Bush is the consummate bumbling leader, each and every Republican is a money hungry capitalist hell-bent on raping the Alaskan wilderness for oil, and Democrats are victimized and misunderstood (especially after their recent defeat in the American mid-term elections). At the opposite end of the spectrum sit Carlson and Novak, relentlessly railing against the weak liberals they so vehemently oppose; the lasting tributes to moral transgression from the Clinton era.

To be fair, the show is lively. It is produced in front of a live studio audience at George Washington University in Washington D.C. and the audience members are given a chance to ask their own questions of the panel. Occasionally the hosts make a good-natured attempt to sprinkle humour on the proceedings, sometimes even with slight success. But through it all I have a constant nagging feeling that what I’m seeing is wrong. Not wrong in the sense that murder is wrong, but like eating McDonald’s is wrong. You know it’s bad and really contributes nothing positive to the world, and yet you can’t turn away from it.

What effect does this blatant Democrat vs. Republican cage match have on the average CNN viewer? The fear I have is that it reinforces the belief in those unfortunate enough to be regular views of the show that American politics has only two choices. And to take it a step further, Crossfire implies that Americans must make a choice between the two political parties. Unfortunately with these parties it seems like a clear-cut case of pick your poison. This atmosphere hardly seems healthy for American politics, especially under a president who promised to usher in a new era of bipartisanship in Washington. So many words are thrown around in the news that make one feel as though every politician is a member of one big happy family; consensus, compassionate conservative, bipartisanship, etc. The big talk is on trying to find a middle ground between Democrats and Republicans. What a show like Crossfire does is to imply that politicians honestly believe that common ground between the two parties is neither desirable nor possible, despite all of the talk in Washington about bridging gaps and working together.

There is reason to hope that not all Americans are convinced of the belief that they live in an absolute two-party state. Jesse Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota in the late nineties as an independent; Ross Perot managed to gain about nineteen percent of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election, and just under ten percent in 1996. And George Wallace, despite his horribly racist attitudes, won 13.5% of the popular vote and 42 electoral seats in the 1968 election. But while attitudes such as those on Crossfire hold the airwaves and voters’ attention, the lesser of two evils will usually be the one with power in America.

  • CNN Under Fire
  • by The Macleod
  • Published on December 1st, 2002

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