Tom Braden and the Death of Cable Television News
You probably don't know the name Tom Braden. What if I mention CNN's "Crossfire" or the television program "Eight is Enough"? Tom Braden was an originator of both, and he died yesterday at age 92.
Braden joined the CIA, ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor of California in 1966, then became somewhat famous when he wrote the book "Eight is Enough," published in 1975, about his experiences as a dad raising eight children. The book was developed into a hit tv series of the same name, which featured dad "Tom Bradford" and his eight children, and launched the career of teen heartthrob-turned-pathetic reality show loser Willie Aames.
Braden, a liberal, then co-hosted a Washington, D.C. radio program called "Confrontation," which pitted him against conservative Pat Buchanan, tackling substantive issues of the day. The fledgling Cable News Network ("CNN") took on Braden and Buchanan and turned "Confrontation" into "Crossfire."
The fiery Buchanan and the equally feisty liberal lion Braden were perfect for the new 24-hour cable news medium. They would invite a guest to sit between them and get caught in the "Crossfire." I know -- I worked on "Crossfire" as a college student. Research and preparation for Buchanan and Braden was an easy job, because each of them was so knowledgeable and so well prepared that they didn't need my help. I remember one hilarious episode, recounted in this CNN article, where the guest was the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Braden was especially contemptuous of this man, asking "should I call you Mister Wizard?" At one point the guest had to remind Braden that he, the Wizard, had been invited on the program after all. Here's a YouTube video of Braden's "Crossfire" program in 1986, where guest Frank Zappa defended free speech in music.
After several changes in personnel on "Crossfire," CNN canceled "Crossfire" in 2005. In doing so, CNN President Jonathan Klein specifically cited Jon Stewart's memorable appearance on the program, where, as this YouTube video shows, an angry Stewart chastised "Crossfire" commentators Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, as well as the cable television news networks generally, for "hurting America" by merely shouting opinions at each other instead of offering substantive information and holding politicians' feet to the fire. In canceling "Crossfire," CNN's Klein stated "I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart's overall premise."
Unfortunately, neither CNN nor the other cable television news networks followed Stewart's advice. Just like Willie Aames, cable news gets both more shrill and more inane every day. For example, during last week's G20 Summit, against the backdrop of the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression, how many stories about iPods and queen hugs have the cable news networks aired? It's gotten so bad that even I, with my background in and love for this business, have had to tune out. Somehow, I don't think that's what Tom Braden had in mind.