Jon Stewart isn’t out of the country for more than a few weeks and already CNN, the most Stewart-whipped cable news channel of them all, has decided to sneak its old Crossfire debate show back onto the air.
Back in 2004, Stewart seemed to single-handedly force the news channel to drop the classic left vs. right TV shouting match. Stewart famously told the two hosts, then the bow-tied young fuddy-duddy Tucker Carlson and Clinton loyalist Dem Paul Begala, that they were “partisan hacks” whose constant bickering was “hurting America.” He ended his appearance by pleading, “Please, please. Please stop.” Three months later CNN’s president at the time, Jonathan Klein, axed the show, saying, “I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise.”
But last week, with Stewart spending the summer in the Middle East filming a movie, CNN’s new president, Jeff Zucker, announced that CNN will resurrect Crossfire this fall. This time, conservatives Newt Gingrich and S.E. Cupp (who works for Glenn Beck and until last week served as the token Republican on MSNBC’s The Cycle) will take turns facing off against former top Obama aides Stephanie Cutter and Van Jones. Will these new odd couples have a mandate to argue better and louder than, say, Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker did on CNN’s last, failed foray into frisson across the aisle?
Maybe CNN has figured out that as a programming chief for cable news, Jon Stewart is a total flop. Urging CNN to hush Crossfire and instead be a dispassionate teller of news stories can make for deadly TV. And one thing Stewart always tells CNN (and anyone aspiring to be half as cool as he is) is that they should listen to him because he knows what makes good TV.
But as Ian Crouch points out in The New Yorker, Stewart is not exactly the cable news-slayer of legend. Crossfire’s slide in the ratings began long before Stewart’s appearance and not because of “the public’s impatience with the tenor of its debates,” as Crouch says, but because that tenor was replicated on media all around them, including on Fox News and the rising MSNBC—not to mention The Daily Show itself:
Stewart’s basic premise—can’t you guys just be nice?—exaggerated the appetite of a wide audience for somber policy discussion, and skips over the fact that so many people turned to Stewart’s own comedy show as their only daily news source because of its subversive, cutting, and often cruel analysis.
That cruel analysis included savage mocking of CNN host Rick Sanchez, to the point where the man lashed back at Stewart and lost his job.