Around 11 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, 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,” Ms. Campbell 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Klein had canceled some five years earlier.
According to multiple sources who attended the meeting, Mr. Klein said that 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 Mr. Klein’s list, Mr. 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 amount to 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, Mr. 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, 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 (who frequently appears on CNN) and former special counsel to President Clinton, who calls himself an old friend and supporter of Mr. 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,’” Mr. 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 Mr. Spitzer’s mug on TV. Recently, The New Yorker’s television critic Nancy Franklin watched Mr. 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,” Ms. Franklin said. “I found him unpleasant to listen to and to look at. … I don’t think anybody really wants to watch him. They’ll tune in one or two times to see him. But he’s very loud. He’s very arrogant. He’s very smart. But he’s not really right for television.”
Her objections, she explained, were on practical and moral grounds. If CNN hired Mr. Spitzer, she felt it would be an extremely cynical move. “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 Mr. Spitzer’s ’06 campaign and has talked to the former governor about his TV prospects. “He’s still the brightest guy I ever met and knows more than anybody I ever met.”
Follow Reid Pillifant via RSS.