September 9, 2013

Return of CNN ‘Crossfire’ injects more opinion into evening cable news

Some may find it ironic that after a lengthy hiatus, Jon Stewart returned to host “The Daily Show” just days before the Sept. 9 re-launch of CNN’s “Crossfire.” During a memorable October 2004 appearance on “Crossfire,” Stewart said the show’s liberal-vs.-conservative argument format was “hurting America” and accused the hosts of failing to live up to their “responsibility to the public discourse.” Two months later, CNN president Jonathan Klein cancelled the 23-year-old show, saying he agreed “wholeheartedly” with Stewart’s assessment.

FT_13.09.06_crossfire-opinionNow, under new CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker, “Crossfire” is back at 6:30 p.m., injecting more opinion-driven programming into an evening cable news landscape that, according to a Pew Research Center analysis, is already chock full of ideology and commentary. The ideological combatants on the new “Crossfire” include a conservative team of former House Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and columnist and commentator S.E. Cupp. Their liberal opponents are Stephanie Cutter, a former deputy campaign manager for President Obama, and Van Jones, the former special advisor for green jobs in the Obama White House. All of them have made numerous appearances as cable pundits.

The snapshot analysis of more than 100 hours of programming in late 2012 found that liberal-dominated MSNBC led the way in evening commentary (86% of its airtime) compared with only 14% devoted to reporting. The Fox News Channel, with its conservative lineup, had the highest proportion of reporting (44%) although there was still more opinion (56%) on its evening programming.

FT_13.09.06_crossfire-networksIn contrast with its two main rivals, CNN has traditionally branded itself around coverage of breaking news events and a more balanced menu of political commentary. And over the course of the entire day, the Pew Research study showed, it was the only one of the three cable channels to offer more reporting (54%) than opinion (46%). But in the evening, CNN leaned more heavily on opinion—66% as opposed to 34% reporting—than Fox News. The resurrection of Crossfire, which will replace a half-hour of Wolf Blitzer’s “Situation Room,” will likely increase the commentary quotient.

CNN’s ratings and programming problems, particularly in the evening, have long been noted by media analysts and reporters, and some have attributed them, in part, to CNN’s failure to follow the Fox and MSNBC model of personality-driven, highly partisan programming in the evening. In that context, the return of Crossfire could be a signal that CNN executives agree with that critique.

The viewership statistics—in the era between Crossfires—do tell a story. When you compare January-August 2005 to January-August 2013 audiences, median viewership across the entire day for the Fox News Channel grew from 896,000 to nearly 1,080,000. The MSNBC viewership increased from 209,000 to almost 382,000. At CNN, viewership was flat, barely inching up from 434,000 to nearly 435,000 in that eight year period.

Topics: News Content Analysis

  1. Photo of Mark Jurkowitz

    is Associate Director at the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project.

  2. Photo of Jesse Holcomb

    is an associate director of research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Dennis Stevens3 years ago

    The broader historical context for Jon Stewart’s critique of Crossfire and the “hurting” of America, can be found in Newton Minow’s 1961 arguments about the “vast wasteland”:…

    It has to do with news in the public interest versus news as entertainment:

    Ironically and coincidentally, I was in the audience of The Daily Show on the night of the Crossfire re-launch and I had the good fortune to be able to personally ask Jon Stewart what he thought about the return of this “partisan hackery”. He said something to the effect “… that truck is already in the ditch. It is not going anywhere.” His original arguments remain highly relevant today, because not much has changed in the media business.

    The point is that, while Crossfire may not yet be hurting America with their new watered down segments, they are not actually doing anything good for America either. However, they really like to pretend that they are because it is good PR. But, it is important not to get confused about things. As a company, CNN is not for America or against it; they are for gathering eyeballs and selling advertising.

    As an organization, they are agnostic to the extent that they do not want to offend their advertisers. To take up a new position, as a company wedged between two competitors on each side of the political aisle, is risky because it might be considered offensive and drive away revenue; so, they dare not risk it. What follows is a gentle, clumsy and cloudy persuasive dance.

    Jeff Zucker has recently argued as an apologist for Crossfire, using the pretense of objectivity as a smokescreen, stating: “So for us, the path is objectivity. And just because you’re being objective doesn’t mean you can’t have points of view. Witness, Crossfire, okay?”

    To suggest that Crossfire is objective discourse is not truthful– it is an intellectually dishonest attempt to side-step the problem. Ultimately, it is an attempt to not have to contend with a very big and pressing problem within broadcast journalism.

    They are avoiding a complex set of questions that are very hard to answer: What does it mean to be “objective” in journalism? What exactly is “media bias”?

    The standard definition of objectivity is “judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices.”

    In real objectivity you cannot have a point-of-view. It is sort of like science– you can only report on what you see and hear but, human perception in the cultural, political and social involves differing outlooks pertaining to risk and blame and thus, offers differing ways of explaining problems and predicting outcomes; this is the “truth” that is completely missing from the present descriptions of objectivity in journalism and media bias.

    To not acknowledge these raw facts, (instead resorting to a twisted and weak argument about “objectivity”), is to deny the human differences in moral reasoning that very clearly exist. The truth is that Fox News and MSNBC are gifts of the free market that were made possible by the deletion of the Fairness Doctrine (For background see:…) . Today, these broadcasters all have audiences because we, as Americans, fundamentally disagree about what should, must and ought be, and often: what is, in the political, the social and the cultural.

    Within authentic journalistic objectivity, you simply report on what you see and hear– what is observable. Emotions or personal prejudices are not observable– but, they are in each and every one of us; they are derived from lived experience and our own personal commitments; to argue persuasively toward these personal commitments is called: editorializing and advocacy.

    The ultimate problem with CNN is in their lack of commitment to a role as a community trustee within the context of the weakening of the Fairness Doctrine. They have no social obligation and they are being disingenuous; this is how they are hurting America.

    CNN’s commitment is as a market participant; they sell ads. They are committed to their advertisers.

    Their job is to get lots of people to view their content– not help American public discourse. The best they can muster is the thin veneer of the “Ceasefire” segment. If they did in fact have a commitment towards enhancing reasoned discourse and “helping America”, they would have updated their outlook after Crossfire was taken off the air.

    I know this because I have been trying to help CNN with this very issue for five years– they want nothing to do with it.

    Let’s not get confused about their role here. There are no internal or external requirements for them to help anyone except themselves; the only problem is that they hurting America by being disingenuous about their role– they possess the capacity to help America as community trustees of broadcasting in the public interest; they choose not to.

    Speculatively speaking– it is possible that this position on journalistic objectivity is not Jeff Zucker’s fault; it may be a policy decision that is handed down from very top echelons of Time-Warner. From the outside, it is hard to tell where the public positions originates but, it seems that the policy on how CNN publicly addresses objectivity in journalism and media bias are worth revisiting, especially given Crossfire’s broad lackluster appeal.

    The fact of the matter remains, CNN has repeatedly failed to innovate and even with new leadership, they have consistency failed to look beyond their old tired methods and they are being dishonest about what their role in all of this is; they ultimately have a PR and brand problem because people, (who agree with Jon Stewart’s, highly credible critique– that links back to Newton Minow’s), expect CNN to be genuine, real and honest about this objectivity issue and also, to act in a responsible manner toward the common good– by helping America, not hurting America.

    Until CNN/Time-Warner update their position, the old lipstick on a pig metaphor remains highly applicable in this context– as is the one about wanting to have their cake and eat it too.

  2. Ludlow Palmer3 years ago

    Jon Stewart was right – Crossfire was lame back then, and it’s not going to be any better now. Is this what we need – less facts and more arguments? I don’t think so. CNN dumped their investigative reporters but hired Newt Gingrich?? Looks like they’re well on their way to winning the race to rock bottom. I will NOT be watching CNN again anytime soon.