Around 11 a.m. on the morning of June 15, CNN staffers convened in the newsroom on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center to listen to the company’s U.S. chief, Jonathan Klein, talk about the state of the network. One month had passed since Campbell Brown had resigned from CNN, stoically admitting along the way that her once rock-steady career had been no match for the treacherous shores of CNN’s 8 p.m. hour. “The simple fact is that not enough people want to watch my program,” Brown wrote in her resignation letter, “and I owe it to myself and to CNN to get out of the way so that CNN can try something else.”
But, for God’s sake, what?
In recent years, the question of what CNN could do to win back the 8 p.m. time slot has seemed like a question that would bedevil Time Warner executives for the rest of eternity. Now, rumors were swirling. Earlier that morning, the New York Post had reported that Klein was close to finalizing a deal with Eliot Spitzer which would make the former governor one-half of a left-right pundit duet, in a show similar to Crossfire, which Klein had canceled some five years earlier.
According to multiple sources who attended the meeting, Klein said no decision had been made, that he had considered a broad range of options for 8 p.m. His list of potential candidates, he told the staff, had consisted of 100 names.
Not so long ago, a TV news executive looking for talent to anchor a new show would more or less be limited to the narrow field of accomplished hard-news journalists. These days, the cable news landscape is a diverse ecosystem of various hardy survivors. Former politicians, talk-radio jockeys, prosecutors, activists, shock jocks and sportscasters now run roughshod through the territory, threatening to trample any mild-mannered reporter who happens into the fray.
Enter the Steamroller.
Of Klein’s list, Spitzer remains the front-runner. How did the Harvard Law School graduate–turned–crusading New York attorney general–turned–middling New York governor–turned–Client No. 9–turned–disgraced tabloid punching bag–turned real estate family man–turned Slate columnist suddenly become a viable cable news candidate?
The truth is, a solid foundation in scandal has come to be a perfectly respectable starting point for any small-screen aspirant hoping to break through in an age of hundreds of channels and on-demand everything. Whatever else his qualifications, Spitzer has proven in recent times to have a knack for one of the more prized skills in cable news—namely, polarizing audiences.
Call it Spitz-o-phrenia.
“He’s a Rorschach test,” Peter Elkind, the author of Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Portfolio Hardcover, 2010), recently told The Observer. “People hate him and they sort of bite their lip about how he screwed up. And people admire and like what he did as attorney general.”
On the other hand …
“My perception is, he would be great on television as a magnet for viewers because he’s so smart and he’s such a great lawyer,” said Lanny Davis, a television pundit and former special counsel to President Clinton, who calls himself an old friend and supporter of Spitzer’s.
“I was actually asked this question by a fellow who was thinking of hiring him and I said, ‘Forget about his political career, he’s going to have good ratings because people are going to watch and be fascinated by him,’” Davis added. “Because this is about someone who’s willing to bounce back. It’s part of an American narrative that goes all the way back in history. We love Horatio Alger. We love forgiving.”
Others recoil at the mere presence of Spitzer’s mug on TV. Recently, The New Yorker’s television critic Nancy Franklin watched Spitzer filling in for Dylan Ratigan on MSNBC. “I was practically blown out through the back of my couch, I was so repelled by the sight of him,” Franklin said. “I found him unpleasant to listen to and to look at. … He’s very smart. But he’s not really right for television.”
Her objections, she explained, were on practical and moral grounds. “He’s sort of one of these high-energy dead souls who populate television now,” she said. “CNN would be rubbing it in our faces, frankly, if they hired him.”
And yet …
“Eliot still has a tremendous amount to offer,” argued Jimmy Siegel, who created the television advertisements for Spitzer’s ’06 campaign. “He’s still the brightest guy I ever met.”
The idea of Spitzer-as-commentator is a curious one for CNN, a channel that built itself on substance but now finds itself chasing ratings.
“At the beginning, I thought it was ridiculous that anybody would even consider him for television,” CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld said. “I think his television persona is among the worst I’ve ever seen. His great strength was that he’s a dictator. That’s not something that really works for an 8 o’clock news show.”
What about daytime? During the summer of 2009, Ratigan was getting ready to launch a new show on MSNBC, called Morning Meeting. As the former CNBC anchor surveyed the cable news landscape looking for ideas to help his show break through, he got to thinking about Spitzer.
Ratigan felt that Spitzer was one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on what Ratigan describes as “the obvious massive theft and cover-up being perpetrated against the American people by the banking system in collaboration with our government.”
And so Ratigan joined Jacob Weisberg, the Slate Group editor, and Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, in helping Spitzer build up his post-scandal media career. Ratigan made Spitzer the first guest on his first show. Later, Spitzer began serving as the substitute anchor, filling in for the entire week after Memorial Day.
The ratings were so-so. For the week, according to Nielsen numbers passed along by MSNBC, Spitzer averaged 312,000 total viewers and 82,000 in the 25-54 demographic—a drop from the week before, when Ratigan’s show averaged 352,000 viewers and 105,000 in the demographic.
For a man so desperately trying to re-enter public life—and there is little doubt Spitzer is, at the very least, very interested in running again—the ratings game presents a conundrum: Which needle to move?
“In order for him to be successful, he has to be exciting and entertaining,” said longtime Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who ran Spitzer’s television advertising in 1994 and 1998 but no longer speaks to him. “If he is exciting and entertaining, he will appear idiotic as a politician who is serious and of consequence. Therefore, if he’s a successful television broadcaster, the probability of him being a serious person in public life again declines precipitously. That’s the danger he faces.”
And yet, for a man of Spitzer’s urgency, there seems an equal danger in doing nothing.
“By this time, it does seem like he needs to do something to revamp his image, because right now it’s just immediately connected to the scandal,” said Leonie Huddy, a political psychology professor at SUNY Stony Brook. “Negative information is always more powerful than positive information. One little bit of negative information can often tip someone to think badly, whereas it takes a lot more positive information to boost someone’s standing or image.”
To wit: In April, a Marist Poll said nearly 60 percent of New Yorkers do not want Spitzer to run again anytime soon. That is slightly better than the roughly 70 percent from the previous fall—but still not good for someone eyeing elected office.
In the end, the potential hookup between CNN and Eliot Spitzer may be less a meeting of passion and more a potential arrangement of necessity between two institutions seeking a hasty resurrection.
“It could be that they’re realizing that their model is failing,” Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald speculated of CNN. “But if they do stick with their current model, I think they’re going to want to sandpaper around those rough edges. And that’s what I’m saying when I watched him hosting that show; I felt like he was making a concerted effort to do that. If they hire Eliot Spitzer and then just try to turn him into Brian Williams or Matt Lauer, then what’s the point?”
By mere dint of CNN floating the test balloon, Spitzer seems destined for a prominent spot in the cable news firmament sooner rather than later. And when this happens, you can bet you’ll hear that familiar frequency of howls of anger alternating with hums of admiration—sometimes from unexpected corners.
“I think Spitzer is incredibly smart, he was a brave and devoted public servant, and I think we are lucky to have his contribution in any arena he chooses to engage,” feminist and occasional Democratic consultant Naomi Wolf cooed to The Observer via e-mail. “I do hope, though, that he won’t enjoy TV too much to return to public life, where we really need him.”