There was a time when news outlets in the Twin Cities would, on occasion and when it was germane to the story, reach out to people on the political right. It even got to the point, in the last aughts, when lowly lil’ ol’ me was getting occasional calls from Channel 4, MPR and WCCO Radio for a grassroots conservative perspective on stories. This hit a peak during the Tea Party years…
…and then, abruptly, stopped.
We’ll come back to that.
The “point/counterpoint” feature was, if not a staple, at least a fairly normal part of American media life not all that long ago. Before “Crossfire” – which, I’m surprised and pained to see, has been gone for over 15 years – there were others; the earliest I can remember was a weekly bit on “Sixty Minutes”, “Point/Counterpoint”, with liberal Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick – two articulate spokespeople for two diametrically opposed viewpoints.
Of course, CNN’s Crossfire was the biggest of them all. The original cast – Pat Buchanan and Tom Leyden – was the best, and sometimes created some fantastic TV – and I say this as someone who was pretty much a Democrat back then, although I hadn’t really thought that much about it (which makes me amply qualified to be a Democrat today). The most memorable bit, in those days when “white supremacist” groups operated in the open and were at least an order of magnitude larger than they are today, was an interview with a uniformed American Nazi. And Leyden, the show’s liberal and a World War 2 veteran, opened the segment by saying “My biggest regret in life was that I didn’t kill more of you back during the war” as the normally un-out-irascible Buchanan looked on, his jaw momentarily agape.
It’s a scene you wouldn’t get today – partly because any notion of patriotism and objective good and evil is gone from the left…
…and partly because Crossfire is long gone.
Now, according to Ben Domenech at Federalist, it was killed by Jon Stewart, who during a fabled appearance in 2004 completely trashed the premise of the show:
Readers will recall this was the infamous “hurting America” clip, where Stewart crapped all over the very concept of a debate show that paired left and right as co-equals in a running debate over the direction of America.
Stewart, who’s a fan of uninformed hubristic rants generally but will put the clown nose back on the minute you call him on it, went on a jeremiad against hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala as representing the worst aspects of American politics. But looking back on the ramifications of his comments — “Crossfire” was canceled months later — what do we see? There is today essentially no program on all of cable television that pairs left and right perspectives on camera as co-equal hosts, allowed to engage in free and open debate about the topics of the day.
Domenech’s premise – that event was the beginning of the end of actual debate in the media:
So we should ask: Is that a good thing? Is the media landscape Stewart helped create better for it, where Brian Williams regularly engages in Stewart-like snark (he called Ron Johnson a Russian asset the other day for reading a Federalist article into the record) and Tucker Carlson is the biggest name as a solo act in cable news?
In a context in which so much ink is dedicated to the concept of silos and the elimination of common space between right and left — and I mean the real right and left, not David Brooks and Maureen Dowd — do we honestly want a world where there is no space where these warring sides meet to do rhetorical battle?
The answer is: of course not. It’s much, much worse. The inability to have a space where such debates play out, and the inability of existing entities to provide such a space, has led directly to a degradation of our political conversation and a lack of familiarity with even the most basic version of the other side’s perspective on the world.
Domenech may have a point – the event was certainly the beginning of the end on cable.
But the stifling of actual co-equal debate began much earlier. I recall the woman who edited the “Letters to the Editor” page at the Strib, back before the internet made everyone an LTE editor, and then before social media made us all stupid, describing on a talk show how she made sure she picked only the dumb voices on some subjects, like gun control and abortion. You know which side she favored.
But it’s become absolutely airtight. As I noted way up above, local media made a point of at least acknowledging some sort of opposing opinion. During the run-up to the Republican National Convenion in 2007, I got invited on an MPR program on the planned protests, to discuss planned counterprotests. Because there was a counterpoint, and there was another side.
A few years later, when I spent some time fact-checking NPR’s fact-check column, both here and via email – correctly – one of MPR’s news execs inadvertently cc’ed me on an email to RIchert, telling her not to bother engaging. And that was the last I’ve heard from NPR, on any level, for any reason.
And it’s not just me. Far from it – even “tame” liberal Republican voices like David Brooks are getting rarer.
It was almost like a switch flipped, along about 2011. LIke the media saw what a motivated, decentralized, idealistic conservative-libertarian throng like the Tea Party could so (and did, in 2010), and figured they needed to starve it of that most precious political commodity ,air time.
I strongly suspect that the “outing” of “JournoList” didn’t end the collusion around the progressive narrative in the media – indeed, I suspect that, like an evil, adenoidal Gandalf, it just came back, bigger and stronger and more secret still.
And the nation is much worse off for it.