“Sometimes I go out and talk to people and they say, ‘Well, you know, I watch Equal Time and then I watch The O’Reilly Factor and then I watch Larry King and then I watch you . And I say, ‘You know, you ought to turn off the TV set. You don’t have a life. Go and read a book, go for a walk and get some exercise. Make love to your wife or whomever you feel like making love to. Talk to your kids!’”
It was late on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 3–the eve of the last weekend of the 2000 Presidential race–and Jeff Greenfield, the red-haired, owlish CNN political correspondent, was talking about the news business with a guest in his office near Penn Station. A grim-faced portrait of George Orwell stared down from a wall behind his desk.
Three years ago, Mr. Greenfield made news himself when he left a successful career at ABC News to join CNN. A former aide to Robert F. Kennedy and New York Mayor John Lindsay, Mr. Greenfield had risen to television-news prominence as Ted Koppel’s literate, thoughtful Sancho Panza on Nightline . But in 1997, an old ABC colleague and friend who had gone on to run CNN’s U.S. operations, Rick Kaplan, convinced Mr. Greenfield to leave his comfortable broadcast digs to try and make his mark in Turnerland.
Things have changed since then. Mr. Kaplan is out at CNN, axed in August, the casualty of declining ratings. The prospect of a couple of former ABC News colleagues helping each other reshape a cable-news division, once so promising, is over. (Another former ABC newsman who joined CNN, Judd Rose, died in June of brain cancer.) Mr. Greenfield said his contract at the cable network is “up in a few months,” and by the veteran reporter’s own admission, his future is not totally clear.
“The default position is that I think I will stay here [at CNN],” Mr. Greenfield said. “But if Millennium Millions happens tomorrow, who the hell knows?”
Not that Mr. Greenfield feels unwanted inside the ever-changing world of CNN, the formerly dominant cable network once again in the process of redefining itself. Mr. Greenfield said he “felt bad” about Mr. Kaplan’s ouster and regretted its timing, but he dismissed the notion that his colleague’s departure has cast any doubt upon his own role at the network.
“If the question is, ‘Is this like when they replace the manager and the third-base coach is worried?’, I sure don’t feel that,” Mr. Greenfield said. “At all.”
To bolster his point, Mr. Greenfield cited a new CNN program he just launched, Unconventional Wisdom . A hybrid of a standard political talk show and a general-interest interview program, Unconventional Wisdom places Mr. Greenfield with a handful of guests culled from outside the usual TV punditry circles and asks them to wrestle with a contemporary issue. Recent guests have included the actor Richard Dreyfuss, the jazz musician Ben Sidran and the former Met Keith Hernandez.
“I have been wanting to try this [kind of show] for a long time,” Mr. Greenfield said. “I tried a pilot of it years ago at ABC for the post- Nightline slot.” ABC ended up going with Politically Incorrect instead.
Mr. Greenfield sees Unconventional Wisdom fitting in somewhere between Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer , Meet the Press and Politically Incorrect . He wants conversation, he said, not talking points. He wants guests who are different, but not knuckleheads just making noise. “I would never book a famous person whose brain is largely composed of mashed potatoes,” Mr. Greenfield said. “It’s not interesting to me to hear somebody say, ‘You know, man, Bush sucks .’”
So far, Unconventional Wisdom has been a nice surprise for CNN. During a weeklong tryout, the show averaged nearly 750,000 viewers, more than double the third quarter average audience of its time slot predecessor, World Today . CNN now intends to air the show on Friday evenings from 10 to 11 p.m.
How the program will ultimately play out with CNN’s audience is hard to tell. The cable-news landscape has changed dramatically even in the three years that Mr. Greenfield has been at CNN. Though CNN remains the biggest cable-news outlet in terms of total households and viewers, upstarts like MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, in particular, have made significant inroads. Mr. Greenfield said he welcomed the competition–even if he’s not exactly certain where he fits within this newer, brasher era of cable news. “I guess I have a Jeffersonian view of this,” he said. “Come on in–the more, the merrier.”
There is one thing about the competition that rankles him, however: the bashing of CNN as the left-leaning “Clinton News Network,” etc. “[Fox News'] Brit Hume is one of the best guys I have ever met, [but] I think he is wrong when he talks about the liberal bias at CNN,” Mr. Greenfield said. “I just don’t think that is right.”
Mr. Greenfield does, however, give Fox credit for its aggressive self-promotion and its ability to draw attention to itself. “One thing I think CNN has done a dreadful job on is marketing itself,” he said. “I think the people running CNN would tell you that.” It’s hard to get people to watch, Mr. Greenfield said, “if you’re not telling anyone who hasn’t watched CNN already to watch CNN.”
But Mr. Greenfield was confident that the faithful would tune in during Election Night. This was likely to be the closest Presidential race in ages, with “more wrinkles than on Don Imus’ neck.” Mr. Greenfield said the pre-election mood inside the newsroom was, in a word, “Wowwww!”
“This isn’t quite the same as dreaming of a brokered convention, but in a way it is,” he said. “If you’re a political journalist and you came into this process as I did, after the end of deliberative conventions, you watch those old tapes and go, ‘Wow, that must have been a heck of an interesting thing to go cover.’ This election has the possibility of going deep into the night without [us] really knowing the outcome.”
And Mr. Greenfield, who is something of a scholar of Presidential races and the electoral process, admitted he was at least a little tantalized by the prospect of an Electoral College showdown. “It’s almost like waiting for the Great Pumpkin to show up, and he shows up,” he said. “The whole idea of looking up at around 1 a.m. in the morning Wednesday night and going, ‘Okay folks, so let’s explain this to you–Bush is two and a half million ahead in the popular vote and Al Gore just nailed down the White House ….” Mr. Greenfield paused wistfully.
Soon after, Mr. Greenfield was up from his desk and heading upstairs to the CNN studio for that day’s Unconventional Wisdom taping. His guests were Los Angeles Times reporter Elizabeth Shogren, dot-com billionaire Mark Cuban and Good Morning America film critic Joel (” Charlie’s Angels : Heaven Sent!”) Siegel.
The show was mildly interesting. Mr. Greenfield talked to his guests about last night’s news that George W. Bush had been arrested for driving under the influence in 1976. The brash Mr. Cuban, who lives in a sprawling mansion and owns the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, yapped about having so many skeletons in his closet the press “would never get a chance to focus on the issues.” Ms. Shogren argued that America and the press had actually given Mr. Bush some breathing room. She and Mr. Cuban squabbled a bit. Mr. Joel (” The Perfect Storm is a perfect summer movie!”) Siegel pretty much stayed out of the way.
Afterward, Mr. Greenfield was upbeat. “That’s exactly the type of show I am looking to do,” he said.
But as for the future, it was hard to pin Mr. Greenfield down. On one hand, he seemed happy at CNN, comfortable with the decision he’d made three years ago, pleased he could continue to stretch and try new things. On the other hand, he seemed to be contemplating a whole world outside television news. There was a novel that Mr. Greenfield wanted to finish writing. There was a home on the West Coast, too.
“There are a lot of interesting things to do in this life,” Mr. Greenfield said. “This is an interesting thing to do, don’t misunderstand me. But I have a place in Santa Barbara with the lady in my life, and that’s a wonderful place to live. It’s not a place to work, because it’s too beautiful.
“There are a lot of things to do and lots of ways to live and work,” Mr. Greenfield continued. “If you are lucky to work and like it, that’s great. But–I don’t know about you–I’ve sometimes spent several days without working at all and thought, ‘This is a great day. Knock off for a day, just go for a swim, go for a walk.’”
Tonight on CNN, CNN NewsStand . [CNN, 10, 10 p.m.]
Thursday, Nov. 9
Jerry Nachman, the former editor of the New York Post and news director at WCBS Channel 2 and WNBC, is out as an executive producer at Politically Incorrect . No, he was not fired.
“Every job I resigned from I read stories about how I got fired,” Mr. Nachman grumbled the other day from his home in Southern California.
Mr. Nachman’s departure was amicable, as it turns out. The veteran newsman joined the P.I. staff last spring at the request of host Bill Maher with the idea of helping out the show until Election Day. It was never supposed to be a long-term deal, he said.
“What I couldn’t say to anyone in [the show], and certainly not to [reporters], is that I’m not staying long,” Mr. Nachman said. “Because you can’t go on as a lame duck.”
Mr. Nachman said he enjoyed his stint at P.I., even if it was a ton of work. One of his main responsibilities was preparing guests for their appearances on the program, in which political pundits, academics, elected officials, comedians and celebrities debate issues of the day.
And not everyone who appears on P.I. is, well, smart. Mr. Nachman said the show’s guests run the gamut from the big music star “whose name I’m not going to come near telling you” who didn’t know who Al Gore was, to the “rap artists who were incredibly well-informed and turned out to be C-Span and CNN junkies.”
Because guests were expected to have at least a teeny-weeny handle on public affairs, P.I. was a tough show to book, Mr. Nachman said: “A lot of big stars don’t want to be on a show like Politically Incorrect because it can expose [them].”
Mr. Nachman also stated that he might surface on P.I. in the near future as a guest. In the meantime, he said, he’s kicking back and working on a handful of projects, including a script treatment that got optioned by rock ‘em-sock ‘em movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Politically Incorrect [WABC, 7, 12:05 a.m.]
Friday, Nov. 10
Most underrated technology breakthrough in the history of prime-time television: the police dashboard mini-camera. Police Videos . [FOX, 5, 8 p.m.]
Saturday, Nov. 11
The first post-election Saturday Night Live. Either Will Ferrell (who plays Bush) or Darrell Hammond (who plays Gore) is stoked. Calista Flockhart hosts. Saturday Night Live [WNBC, 4, 11:30 p.m.]
Sunday, Nov. 12
American Tragedy. A two-part miniseries about the O.J. Simpson case with a teleplay by Norman Mailer, starring Ving Rhames as Johnnie Cochran and Christopher Plummer as F. Lee Bailey. Mr. Simpson is a former professional football player turned broadcaster who was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend in Los Angeles in the early 1990′s. [WCBS, 2, 9 p.m.]
Monday, Nov. 13
What, no more Deadline? How are you supposed to make it through the week without the newsroom antics of columnist-gumshoe Oliver Platt and his cadre of tabloid wags? Dick Wolf must want to go medieval on those guys at NBC. Tonight, the Peacock has the conclusion of In the Beginning , some miniseries about the Bible. [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]
Tuesday, Nov. 14
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire ? If we’re to believe the ratings, increasingly fewer and fewer of us. [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.]
Follow Jason Gay via RSS.