Jon Stewart, The Most Trusted Name In News

Okay, so that headline is a bit over-the-top. But, Ross Douthat does offer up a really solid programming idea for CNN -- even if it is wrapped in a candy coating of media criticism:
People at CNN see themselves as victims of a polarized political culture — and to some extent, they are. But high-minded self-pity only gets you so far. At a media event in Washington recently, I watched a CNN producer try to persuade a gaggle of skeptical right-wing journalists that the network’s hosts really are objective. (“You’d be surprised how some of them vote!”) Even if they were, it wouldn’t matter. The disinterested anchorman pose worked when TV news ran for 30 minutes every night at 6 p.m. It doesn’t work across hours and hours of prime time, with Campbell Brown blurring into John King blurring into Wolf Blitzzzzzz... .

What might work, instead, is a cable news network devoted to actual debate. For all the red-faced shouting, debate isn’t really what you get on Fox and MSNBC. Hannity has ditched Colmes, and conservatives are only invited on Rachel Maddow’s show when they have something nasty to say about Republicans. There’s room, it would seem, for a network where representatives from the right and left can both feel comfortable, and compete on roughly equal terms. Sort of like they did on ... “Crossfire.”

But not the “Crossfire” of 2004. CNN overreacted to Jon Stewart’s jeremiad, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. The show was years removed from its Michael Kinsley/Pat Buchanan glory days, and its liberal hosts at the time, Begala and James Carville, really were Democratic Party hacks. (The conservatives, Carlson and Robert Novak, were much more independent-minded, but the constant need to rebut partisan talking points took its toll on them as well.)

What cable news needs, instead, is something more like what Stewart himself has been doing on “The Daily Show.” Instead of bringing in the strategists, consultants and professional outrage artists who predominate on other networks, he ushers conservative commentators into his studio for conversations that are lengthy, respectful and often riveting. Stewart’s series of debates on torture and interrogation policy, in particular — featuring John Yoo and Marc Thiessen, among others — have been more substantive than anything on Fox or MSNBC.
If you ask me (and by reading this, that question is inferred), the media needs less of Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann.

Rather, I think that our political discourse would benefit from folks like Joe Scarborough, William F. (or Christopher) Buckley, Andrew Sullivan, E.J. Dionne, Thomas Friedman and others. Mostly reasonable, but heavily opinionated commentators who take a clear position on issues. A 'Crossfire'-like program where ideas can be brought to the table and not be drowned-out by screaming from opposition.

As I've argued before, media outfits (cable news networks in particular) will do whatever will garner them the highest ratings. If that means having Glenn Beck crying over some perceived commu-fasci-socialisms, then so be it. If Keith Olbermann railing against the Bush administration in a quasi-Murrow fashion gets MSNBC another bump in the network's share, then they will promote the hell out of another 'special comment'.

So, the all-consuming question still lingers; will anyone watch this type of a program?

If I were to guess -- based on the current climate in the media -- I would think that a show the likes of which I would like to see would be a miserable failure. But it would be really interesting to watch... while it lasted.

Photo: Bettmann-Corbis