Think-tank warfare

"Crossfire" turns 15 -- enough already!

Published June 23, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

"Crossfire," which bills itself as "the classic Washington political debate program" and celebrates its 15th anniversary this week, may be the perfect showcase for all that is wrong with Washington politics: It has such a sour blend of needless posturing, gratuitous bluster and endless statistical slingshots. Most importantly, the show thrives on the conceit that intricate policy debates and profound social issues are best explored via short, sharp, shocking sound barks.

That we've gotten used to this sort of acid splashing and what one-time-anchor-from-the-left Michael Kinsley has aptly called "stat wars" is probably the worst news of all. Sadly, "Crossfire" no longer irks or offends. We've become inured to the rhetorical and statistical free-for-alls cascading over the radio, television and Internet. "Crossfire" is no longer simply the enemy; "Crossfire" is now us.

In that sense, the show is, indeed a "classic." After 15 years, the show may no longer be HQ for inflammatory polemic, but without a doubt "Crossfire" was, along with "The McLaughlin Group," an important pioneer of the bark genre. It is hard to imagine that something as incendiary as Rush Limbaugh, for instance, could have existed without these trailblazers of televised unpleasantness.

"Crossfire" helped pioneer the stat wars era. We could pin blame on founding producer Randy Douthit, or founding hosts Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan, or even Ted Turner, but the truth is that it was probably inevitable. Since the early '70s, the statistical and rhetorical ammo that fuels "Crossfire" and the rest of on-air Washington had been piling up, manufactured by hundreds of so-called "think tanks," institutions with purposefully vague and formidable names like Institute for Responsive Government and National Center for Policy Analysis. Staffed with some of the most skilled polemicists and statisticians in the land and generously supported by corporations with specific political agendas, their task is to produce mountains of data to support partisan policy objectives.

These institutions are masters of contention. A good many of them are expressly uninterested in an earnest pursuit of the truth. "We're not here to be some kind of Ph.D. committee giving equal time," Burton Pines, then-vice president of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, said years ago. "Our role is to provide conservative public policy makers with arguments to bolster our side. We're not troubled over this. There are plenty of think tanks on the other side."

Actually, the think tank field is dominated by corporate money and conservative political philosophy. But it is true that, whatever position you might like to argue, there is an impressive mound of data in support of your views only a fax machine away. The top-caliber "Crossfire" participants know how to access this data and turn it into a verbal machine-gun nest. Observe the masters at work:

PAT BUCHANAN, Co-Host: Arkansas was fourth highest in teen pregnancy when [Dr. Joycelyn Elders] took over. Now, it's second or first. Under her program of condom distribution and the rest, STD's, sexually transmitted diseases, the incidence of them have soared.

DR. WALTER FAGGETT, National Medical Association: You take it out of context, Pat. That's the problem. Again, the teenage pregnancy rate in Arkansas -- the rate of increase has decreased.

MICHAEL KINSLEY, Co-Host: And the rate of increase in Arkansas is lower than the rate of increase in the rest of the country.

RALPH REED, The Christian Coalition: No, it isn't. Between 1987 and 1992, teen pregnancy increased in Arkansas by 15 percent, at the time that it was increasing at 5 percent at the national average. It's gotten a lot worse.

KINSLEY: The statistic I saw was 17 percent in Arkansas, but it was 18 percent in the country.

(From "Crossfire," 7/16/93)

We the audience are, of course, entertained by the barrage. And also stunned: The statistical anarchy freezes us in our tracks. The psychological reaction to such an overabundance of information and competing expert opinions is to simply avoid coming to conclusions. "You can't choose any one study, any one voice, any one spokesperson for a point of view," explains psychologist Robert Cialdini. "So what do you do? It turns out that the answer is: You don't do anything. You reserve judgment. You wait and see what the predominance of opinion evolves to be."

"But," Cialdini continues, confronting the paradox, "I don't know that we have the luxury to wait that long, in modern life." We may not, but that's not Ted Turner's problem. All he has to do is carry us for 30 minutes.

As American politics has struggled to break out of these strictures, particularly since the end of the Cold War, "Crossfire" and its cousins have, for the sake of clarity, for the sake of character-driven entertainment, sharply reinforced the notion of us vs. them, coldblooded conservative vs. knee-jerk liberal. Their message is: Despite what you might read in the Washington Monthly or New Republic, or from what you may hear from President Clinton or Bill Bradley, there is no interesting new middle ground, no important "conversation." You're either fer us or agin us. The "Crossfire" bluster is designed expressly to exploit and even widen this divide -- great for ratings, terrible for democracy.

And the acrimony is, of course, purely synthetic. "The viewer might think you're ready to strangle each other," Robert Novak, who works for CNN's "Capitol Gang," told Tad Friend for a recent New York Times Magazine piece on punditry. "But the heat is done for television. It's a little like professional wrestling."

A little like professional wrestling (I'm coming after YOU, Sununu!). Need anything more be said? For the enrichment of Time Warner Turner stockholders, "Crossfire" gleefully passes over the agora in favor of the Colosseum. Not only does it consistently reduce issues of great importance to well-lit mudslinging, it also provides an ideal off-season campaign platform for America's great contemporary Holocaust-revisionist, Pat Buchanan.

Happy anniversary, "Crossfire." I don't suppose you could just go away and quit now?

By David Shenk

David Shenk is author, most recently, of Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut.

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