Help Wanted: TV Show Seeks Avowed Lefty

Which television twosome gives you furious ideological clashes between a militant far right-winger and a brutally fanatical centrist? The co-hosts of “Crossfire.”

This is the durable weeknight series that CNN stubbornly insists is a “face-off” of dueling philosophies from opposite poles of the political spectrum.

It isn’t.

One co-host signs off by saying, “From the right, I’m. . . .” Believe it. The other says, “From the left, I’m. . . .” Forget it.


“Crossfire,” one of CNN’s most popular programs, can be what it advertises, though, if the cable channel does the right thing and picks a true advocate from the left to succeed Michael Kinsley. Long mislabeled a leftist by the program, Kinsley departs Dec. 1 for another job, giving “Crossfire” an opportunity to at last achieve the balance it has lacked. Picking a female, rather than yet another male authority figure, would be nice, too.

The “Crossfire” format calls for guests with conflicting views to simultaneously fling insults at each other in verbal combat orchestrated by the two co-hosts--designated advocates from the left and right who conclude each half hour with summaries of the preceding wrangle from their own political perspectives. Thus, as shapers and interpreters of the dialogue (such as it is), the co-hosts are critical.

“Crossfire” can be a hoot. As a series designed solely for infantile partisan conflict and sound bites, however, it will never be confused with a Socratic dialogue. Democrats and Republicans equally share the dumbness mantle. Yet he who most often shouts loudest usually controls the arena on “Crossfire,” which CNN proudly bills as “television’s most combative half hour.” That’s only slight hyperbole: On a given day, it can match even the shrieking “Ricki Lake,” “Jerry Springer,” “Jenny Jones” and “Carnie” tongue lashing for tongue lashing.

Not untypical was Monday night’s program, which found Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) locked in perpetual petulance over the meaning of this week’s temporary budget truce between Congress and the Clinton Administration. Robert Novak, who alternates with John Sununu as the program’s conservative co-host, aggressively attacked Gejdenson’s fork-tongued defense of Clinton with his usual sarcastic bombast. The allegedly left-leaning Kinsley took a few verbal swipes at Nussle but without much fervor.

Perhaps Kinsley felt Clinton and his surrogate of the moment, Gejdenson, had it coming. Perhaps he was right. Or, perhaps, Kinsley’s general weariness with “Crossfire” was showing. Whatever the case, the episode was symbolic of “Crossfire” co-hosts: On most issues, the fire and passion come only from the right.

Just because “Crossfire” generates much less light than noise and nonsense, though, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t owe its viewers political balance.

“Our goal is to have a show that’s as balanced as it can be,” “Crossfire” producer Rick Davis said from Washington on Tuesday. Yet from its inception in 1982, “Crossfire” has listed right. When it comes to its battling co-hosts, CNN has always favored Republican arch conservatives versus Democratic arch middle-of-the-roaders, the result being debates that skew right of center because the true left is unrepresented.

In the program’s early days, the “left” position was occupied by Tom Braden, a former CIA official whose life was the basis for the ABC series “Eight Is Enough.” So haplessly overmatched was Braden on “Crossfire” that he was often reduced to incoherent babble when not watching with stunned awe as his more skilled, more ardent counterpart, the reactionary Patrick Buchanan, made hash of the guest Braden was supposed to be supporting.

The suffering Braden was put out of his misery in 1989 when replaced by journalist Kinsley. Although very smart and a forceful, quick-witted debater with an agile mind, Kinsley candidly acknowledged being about 1/16th of an inch left of center, in contrast to the extreme conservatism of his various co-hosts.

Buchanan left the program for two years in the mid-1980s to be then-President Reagan’s communications director and now is on his second leave, with Kinsley having helped him hold up a sign giving his campaign’s toll-free number, to seek the GOP presidential nomination. His successors, Sununu and veteran Washington pundit Novak, also are miles more to the right than Kinsley is to the left.

The same has been the case with those who have filled in for Kinsley from time to time, including Washington Post columnist Juan Williams and political consultant Bob Beckel, whom producer Davis said are “strong candidates” to succeed Kinsley. The imbalance is especially evident when the “left” position is filled by a professional journalist working under the crushing burden of objectivity. One of these is Time magazine columnist Margaret Carlson, whom Davis said also is being considered as a possible successor to Kinsley. She got a tryout on two shows last week.

Novak: “From the right, I’m Robert Novak.”

Carlson: “From Washington, I’m Margaret Carlson.”

No, no, no. The show is supposed to be balanced, not the co-hosts.

From Washington, also, this was Ron Carey, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, urging in a letter to Davis that he hire a co-host “who could help the show make a real contribution to the national political debate.” That, he added, “would be better for your show--and better for the nation.”

From Los Angeles, amen.