Eliot Spitzer on CNN’s Identity Crisis: ‘There’s No Objectivity in Network News’

It was the usual Wednesday mix of moguls (Jon Tisch), media men (Richard Beckman, Mike Perlis) and television honchos (Henry Schleiff) today at Michael’s. With this Type A crowd, summer vacations are for slackers — at least until August. From the looks of things, there were plenty of deals being done (or at least pitched) between bites.

I was joined today by Eliot Spitzer and Lisa Linden. The last time the three of us had lunch, New York’s former governor was headlining his own show on CNN, In The Arena, which replaced the short-lived Parker Spitzer which he launched with co-host Kathleen Parker in 2010. About a year ago, CNN boss Ken Jautz cancelled In The Arena in a shakeup of the network’s primetime lineup. “I’m very happy with the show we did and the ratings we got, which were good to compared to what they’re getting now,” Eliot told me.  Not surprisingly, he says he prefers and is better suited for Current TV’s politically charged environment. “Current has an ideology. There’s no pretense; we’re open about it. CNN tries very hard to position itself as an non-ideological news network, but there’s no objectivity in network news. It would be better for all of us if we just accepted that.” Therein lies the major issue with his former employer’s rating woes, says Eliot: “CNN has a serious question of what it is and they’ve got to answer that.”

Having stepped in seemingly hours after Keith Olbermann was booted from Current TV, Eliot took to the airwaves with the aptly titled Viewpoint in Olbermann’s old time slot with no promotional campaign or PR machine to attract viewers (although Olbermann’s own campaign to get his side of the story out gave the fledgling network plenty of attention). But the show does have co-founder Al Gore‘s support (he’s been a guest on Viewpoint) and Eliot says Joel Hyatt is very involved in the “day-to-day” running of the network. “They have been great. I’ve known Al since 1999 and I like him very much. He’s a great guy.” (BTW you can see what Joel had to say about all those supposed dust-ups with Olbermann in this Mediabistro interview.)

Eliot Spitzer and Diane Clehane

Helming a show on a start-up like Current TV necessitates being “intellectually nimble” and “really putting in the work” in order to be heard above the fray — and a concerted marketing effort to attract more viewers would also help things considerably — says Eliot. (Current.com details where the network can be found on Time Warner, Direct TV and Comcast, among other outlets.)  For now, he’s digging in for the long haul (“although in television I really don’t know what that means”) and staking his claim with nightly editorials on the broadcast. Last night, he chastised Mitt Romney for having “no ideas.” His assessment: “It’s one thing to evolve intellectually over time, and with that comes a natural of a shift in positions. The problem with Romney is he’s done it on so many issues that are so fundamental. I have no idea who this guy is.”

President Barack Obama‘s reelection campaign is also suffering from an identity crisis. “It’s not clear what his message is.” His advice to the president to win what he predicts will be a “close” election: Bring in the surrogates to play the heavy and get out a focused message on his successes.”He needs to show that his investments were better. Exhibit A: the auto industry and what investing did to bring that industry back. He needs to drive home the point that (what Romney is proposing) already failed. Stack them up with what George Bush did. Those policies failed,” says Eliot. Before he dashed off,  I asked what grade he would give current New York governor Andrew Cuomo. He declined to comment, saying “I don’t give grades.” But he did offer this tidbit: “That recent stuff in The New York Times on the fund with secret donors is crazy stuff.”

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