A former student of mine, Jeff Eubanks, now the assistant news editor of the Oxford Eagle here in Oxford, wrote a column a week or so ago which he began by saying that I had taught him that a good opinion writer should entertain, inform and educate. He left out the primary purpose of opinion writing which is to start a conversation, to spark a debate on a topic.
There’s nothing like a good debate. Unfortunately, most of what passes for presenting both sides of an argument on television and talk radio these days is nothing like a good debate. It’s more like a shouting match or those fights you used to have with your siblings that degenerated into sticking out your tongue and going, “Nah, nah, na, nah!”
But, apparently, that’s what viewers want, otherwise why would CNN be bringing back “Crossfire.” After driving a stake through its heart back in 2005, network executives apparently looked at the numbers and decided the stake was actually in the advertising revenues and now plans to resurrect it this September.
“Crossfire,” and other shows of its ilk and all the cable news and radio networks have had them, was vile. It never solved any problems, it never gave viewers fodder for reaching their own conclusions about an issue, and the tone it set was one of the reasons the country is so politically polarized today. The producers probably would argue that, yes, it was partisan but gave both sides an equal forum to present their arguments. But, like today’s politics, there was never any compromise or solutions offered. It was a playground brawl.
It was, as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote in, “The Elements of Journalism,” part of the Argument Culture, debate as entertainment. But, as media critic Jon Katz writes in the book, “I don’t mean throwing a brick at someone’s head and saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, you’re a jerk!’ You should be provoking people to think – challenging them to justify and defend their ideas.”
But that was something shows like “Crossfire” and others never did. It was argument for entertainment’s sake. And it took an unlikely source to expose it and bring it down in its first incarnation, “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart.
Stewart appeared on “Crossfire” in 2004 and told the hosts, “you have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.”
He went on to plead during his appearance, “ … it’s not so much that it’s bad but as it’s hurting America. … Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America.”
Three months later, after a deluge of negative public opinion about the show since Stewart’s plea, it was canceled. The public has a duty in public discourse, and that’s not to support shows like “Crossfire,” talk radio and the like.
They do nothing to further public discourse and real debate.
Let’s hope the latest incarnation dies a swift and painful death at the public’s hands.
MARTY RUSSELL writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.