Conventional etiquette is that having the TV on at a party is a “no-no.” But this is Washington, where convention and etiquette, like Congress, the White House, and the media, aren’t always on speaking terms. TV is a lifeline, especially on a night when the President addresses the nation about a possible military strike, as President Obama did Tuesday night. That address had an impact on two media soirees, both welcoming new staff: Margaret Carlson invited a few dozen friends to her cozy Connecticut Avenue apartment to welcome Emily Lenzner to Atlantic Media, and CNN hosted 300 at the Carnegie Library to welcome the new hosts of a revival of that old cable chestnut, Crossfire. There are four in the cast, but the focus at the party was on just about every move made by former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista.
At Carlson’s party the TV was placed discreetly behind the bar and tuned to MSNBC, which was interesting because Carlson is a former CNN chat show panelist, and spent many years with The Capital Gang. Ah, but alliances matter. She now pops up as a political commentator on MSNBC. Carlson, who’s also a cook, held court in the open kitchen, fussing over the party food (which was delicious). Evening sunlight streamed into the large windows of the sixth-floor apartment. The mood was upbeat as media folks reconnected after summer holidays. There was a large contingent from Atlantic Media, including John Fox Sullivan, Elizabeth Baker Keffer, Bruce Gottlieb, James Bennet, and Steve Clemons, plus Shelby Coffey of the Newseum, Jennifer Nycz-Conner of Washington Business Journal, Frances Sellers of the Washington Post, Marilyn Geewax of NPR, Michelle Cottle of the Daily Beast, Robb Harleston of C-SPAN, and some non-media, including Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Siemens North America president Eric Spiegel, and Carol Wilner of AT&T.
The Crossfire party at the Carnegie Library downtown offered a lavish and louder scene. A jazz band provided music, and sky-high TV screens, large enough to dominate the cavernous party space, flashed highlights of old and new Crossfire clips, and later the President’s address. Every now and then an image of CNN’s founder, a much younger Ted Turner, loomed over the room. If high hopes can be measured by money spent on a party, then CNN is wildly optimistic about the reboot of Crossfire with hosts Gingrich, S. E. Cupp, Van Jones, and Stephanie Cutter. Possibly it will find a niche in an era of heightened partisanship, but it’s an interesting move for CNN president Jeff Zucker to make.
The original Crossfire aired from 1982 to 2005, and was for most of those years a go-to for political debate. It died an inglorious death that was hastened by a controversial episode—really a debacle—that featured an interview with Jon Stewart. During the exchange with hosts Tucker Carlson, who handled the right-wing point of view, and Paul Begala, who spoke from the left, Stewart derided the format and called them both “partisan hacks.” It went downhill from there. Several months later, Carlson and Crossfire parted ways and CNN announced cancellation of the broadcast.
Carlson today is cofounder and editor of the Daily Caller. He’s also magnanimous about CNN and Crossfire. “Unfortunately I missed the launch and launch party last night,” he wrote to us in an e-mail. “But the format of the show always made sense to me: evenly matched peers debating the news of the day along clear ideological lines. There’s got to be an audience for that if done right. And I love S. E. Cupp, so I’m rooting for her.”
At the party, Zucker made clear Crossfire was personal to him. “When I came to CNN seven months ago the first two things I wanted to do were one, bring back James Earl Jones [who does CNN voiceovers], and the second thing I wanted to do was bring back Crossfire . . . because I remember that it was my favorite show in television news when I was growing up, and I started watching television and news, and it always held a very special place in my heart.” Zucker lauded the four cohosts, who each took a turn to speak. Gingrich, for his part, said he was excited to work with the CNN team. “I think we’re off to a terrific start,” he said. He added that the broadcast is “rapid fire” and “brings the country a real choice in an educated way that both entertains and informs.”
So far, reviews have been grumpy and the ratings in need of a lift. It’s no surprise that the first to bite their own are other media. The Week magazine called it “doomed.” Huffington Post reviewed the premiere episode Monday as “awkward,” similar to the review from Politico. The New Republic said there was “very little fire.” Business Insider called it a “disappointment.” As for ratings, Variety said the debut brought “modest overall numbers” that were “an improvement relative to the time period.” This means the show could either go up—or, dare we say, go the way of its predecessor.
But Tuesday night was about a party, big TVs, music, bars, food, and the presidential address. The crowd comprised lots of media folks, plus some Hill and government people—ambassador-designate Caroline Kennedy, DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, senator Rick Santorum, representatives Darrell Issa, Mark Sanford, and Tulsi Gabbard—and a contingent of CNN executives, as well as anchors Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper, and Candy Crowley. From the competition there was Greta Van Susteren of Fox News.
What should comfort the Crossfire hosts and staff is Zucker’s commitment. He announced to the crowd, “We have an incredibly dynamic team that will be a part of this show and this network for a long time to come.” Out of the mouths of TV executives . . .