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Reese Schonfeld

Reese Schonfeld

Posted: June 25, 2010 12:13 PM

The Exhumation of Crossfire

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For a change, I'm going to write about something I really know about. As the former CEO of CNN, and the creator of Crossfire (the show, not the name -- Paul Bissonette, CNN's PR man, came up with that), I think I'm qualified to comment on the new, not to be called Crossfire, television program created for Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker.

To be blunt, I can't think of a worse idea. The original Crossfire featured Pat Buchanan and Tom Braden, whose name you rarely hear these days. The program was not intended as a shouting match -- our goal was to put the number one news maker of the day on CNN air at 10pm every night and to have him reply to questions from the right, Buchanan, and from the moderate left, Braden. The guest would be caught in the crossfire.

Both Braden and Buchanan were men of distinction. Braden was a liberal Republican, who had parachuted behind German lines during the Second World War as an OSS (forerunner of the CIA) agent. In 1950, he returned to the CIA where he became head of the International Organizations Division and worked closely with Alan Dulles and Frank Wisner, and ran covert operations for the agency. But he is also remembered as the author of Eight is Enough, which spawned a popular television show, with the lead actor playing the real life Tom Braden.

Buchanan, who may be the most intelligent newsman I've ever worked with, started out as a twenty-three year old editorial writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, promoting an extremely conservative agenda. An early supporter of Barry Goldwater, he joined the Richard Nixon team and served in the White House from 1969 through 1974, and I still think of him as the smartest man in the Nixon administration. Despite differences in opinion, Buchanan and Braden got along very well -- as conservative as Buchanan was, he could easily respect a liberal who had actually gone to war and returned a hero.

But Ted Turner didn't like the idea of the show, and refused to schedule it. Ted and I had a fight -- I lost, and I got fired. But I, as CEO of CNN, had signed a contract with Braden and Buchanan. They threatened a lawsuit. I was to be a witness, and Ted was advised to settle the lawsuit. He agreed, and put Crossfire on the air for a half an hour at 11:30pm, and within six months, Ted moved it to 7:30pm. It quickly became the highest rated show on CNN.

Braden and Buchanan were friends, they did not shout and they did not demean. They treated each other and their guests with great courtesy. Their show was a winner, but it required a lot of effort. Booking the top news maker of the day every day was no easy task. Even getting second or third best was difficult.

In 1985, Buchanan left the program to join the Reagan administration, he was replaced by Robert Novak, who was hired in 1980 as a "columnist" and had impeccable conservative credentials. Buchanan came back in '87, but Braden left in '89 and after that the show became a free for all cacophony. I was appalled by it, and remained so for the next fifteen years -- lazy bookers, second-rate guests, a crowded stage and a shouting match. Its ratings had decreased, and once FoxNews launched, Crossfire was overmatched and overwhelmed. It's a sad and painful story, so I wasn't too disappointed when CNN's current President, Jonathan Klein, killed it. I didn't think anything could be worse than that, but Klein has proven me wrong.

Now, in what seems to be one last desperate attempt to save his job, Klein has created a pale imitation of the original Crossfire. The dictatorial Eliot Spitzer is the antithesis of the strong, but cordially polite, Tom Braden, and Kathleen Parker is no Pat Buchanan. According to the New York Times, she characterizes herself as "pro-life...But I don't go around carrying a fetus in a jar." Buchanan, like Barry Goldwater before him, was not afraid of being considered extreme. Parker seems to avoid it at all costs.

CNN was created as a news network, and the 10pm hour, where the Crossfire show had been originally scheduled, was supposed to make news. By interviewing the protagonist of the day's leading story, we hoped we could get him to say something that would advance the story by at least one news cycle, and have everybody quoting us in the next day's newspaper. The guest was supposed to deliver fresh information, not controversy. Unfortunately, for twenty years, Crossfire shed more heat than light, and I suspect Spitzer-Parker will do the same.