Klein first had the idea to hire Spitzer after reading his financial-reform columns in Slate. He developed a concept for a show called The Investigators. When I visited Klein this summer, he still had the idea for the show marked on a whiteboard in his office. Listed alongside Spitzer’s name was TARP special inspector general Neil Barofsky, Bernie Madoff whistle-blower Harry Markopolos, and Elizabeth Warren. “What if you got them all together and every week they get together and they hold people accountable?” Klein asks me excitedly. Spitzer didn’t think the idea could be pulled off. “Eliot’s reaction was, ‘Well, as attorney general, I had subpoena power.’ ”
Klein developed a backup plan. He talked to Howard Dean and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell. But Klein remained interested in Spitzer and arranged for the two to meet, and in the late spring Parker took the Acela to New York and showed up at Spitzer’s office. “It was one of the strangest dates ever,” Parker tells me. “We joked this is closest either of us will get to an arranged marriage.”
On a recent morning, Parker is sitting opposite Spitzer and their executive producer Liza McGuirk at a corner table inside the cavernous tenth-floor CNN cafeteria, with Columbus Circle filling the window.
“Well, you were approving me or checking me out,” Parker says teasingly.
Spitzer shifts uncomfortably. “I wouldn’t use those phrases.”
The pair have a surprising, adult chemistry, simultaneously flirty and professional. In our conversation, Parker plays the teasing office wife humbling Spitzer, who playfully takes the abuse.
Spitzer says the goal for the show is consensus.
“Oh, no,” Parker interjects. “There is a right and wrong here, and I’m right.”
“And that’s why I will go home every night shaking my head and drinking heavily.”
This past May, Klein conducted a secret survey of about 700 people. “Of course we tested to make sure we’re not fucking crazy,” he told me. At first, Spitzer scored abysmally on likability and awareness. Outside of New York, many people simply didn’t know who he was. But after viewing a series of two-minute clips of Spitzer guest-hosting for Dylan Ratigan on MSNBC that spring, Spitzer’s scores improved. Survey participants liked Spitzer’s strong anti–Wall Street views.
But the notion of a talk show with two clashing points of view is very much passé in prime-time television. “CNN is struggling because the audience knows where things stand and it becomes almost embarrassing to sit at home and watch hosts who don’t know where things stand,” says MSNBC’s O’Donnell. “That’s why they’re struggling. Why would you watch that?”
Olbermann echoes O’Donnell’s analysis. “I don’t want to make it sound like everything should be an echo chamber, but the idea that you’re not an opinion channel because it’s not just one opinion is just ludicrous,” Olbermann said. “James Carville is an opinion, nothing but an opinion, and he’s on all the damn time. The flaw over at CNN is a television flaw. It’s not opinion versus non-opinion. They’re going to please neither side. I would argue it’s much more dishonest intellectually to say the moon is a thing largely made out of rock and is in the sky and makes this circle around the Earth and spins in a certain direction and we can see it in the distance, and to answer that, the man who says the moon is made entirely out of green cheese.”
On a recent Friday, Rachel Maddow is standing at a whiteboard twirling a green Sharpie and looking disapprovingly at an array of stories listed in front of her. There’s a segment about the Obama White House’s failure to win the PR war, another segment about a new political ad by Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio that features Maddow as a punch line, and a segment on the congressional hearings into the BP spill. Maddow scans the whiteboard. The Shirley Sherrod scandal, which had been dominating the news all week, isn’t on the lineup, and she wants to cover it tonight. Five days into the scandal, the story had shifted to the ideological battlefield of cable news, and Maddow is now a target. The previous night on Fox, O’Reilly lashed into Maddow and NBC News for charging Fox with stirring the racial pot. “I mean, one NBC News loon actually said on the air that the coverage of acorn, the Black Panthers, and Ms. Sherrod was designed to make white Americans scared of black Americans. Who is sponsoring this stuff, Mad magazine?” O’Reilly roared. He then recast the debate in business terms, portraying MSNBC as a desperate competitor. “NBC News is getting crushed by FNC—crushed,” O’Reilly told his audience. That’s why [NBC News president Steve] Capus and his character assassins do what they do. If you can’t beat them, slime them.”