CNN Changes its Tune With Spitzer/Parker Debate Show

By Alex Weprin 

While naming Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker as hosts of a new 8 p.m. “roundtable” program on CNN was expected, it is still a transformational moment for the network, which has long positioned itself as being about journalism, not opinion.

“It won’t be straight down the middle, it won’t be non-biased, it will be structured just the way you would have a discussion with anybody interested in having a civil, rational conversation,” Parker, a Washington Post columnist told TVNewser soon after the announcement.

While CNN is certainly not abandoning the field of journalism, the new program will not be based on firsthand reporting, though the final format is still being developed.

Spitzer, the former New York governor who resigned from office after his involvement in a prostitution scandal, says that the program will present their opinions and the opinions of guests, but that “we are not going to present them in a way that is bombastic and unrelenting.”

In a memo to employees Wednesday, CNN/U.S. president Jon Klein defended the decision to hire commentators for one of the network’s most valuable and prestigious timeslots. Specifically, Klein argued that while Spitzer and Parker are commentators, they will base their comments on facts:

[O]ur new hosts’ backgrounds and perspectives bear obvious differences. But they agree on at least one thing: that honest, vigorous, wide-ranging debate and discussion – driven by facts, not hysteria – is the best means of uncovering the solutions America craves.

Of course, political commentators have traditionally not let facts get in the way of a good point, as CNN’s “Crossfire” showed. In one of his first orders of business as CNN’s new boss in 2005, Klein canceled “Crossfire” telling the New York Times he wanted to move CNN away from “head-butting debate shows.”

But the new show does seem to contradict what Klein told advertisers at its upfront presentation in April:

“Our mission, our mandate, is to deliver the best journalism in the world: firsthand reporting. Incisive analysis. No bias. No agenda… That puts us in the world of cable news in a category of one. Our traditional competitors have abandoned the field.”

Still, Parker says, “We are not going to be partisans, we will not be approaching this as representing a view from a political party. There will be other guests that we will have on that we hope will be open to non-partisan creative thinking.

There is a whole reservoir of people out there who are experts, that make us think about issues in a different way,” she added.

And while “Crossfire” was almost exclusively a political show, the new program will occasionally venture into other areas of discussion.

“We could end up talking about the off-sides rule in soccer, that call could have been a killer,” said Spitzer, referring to a call made earlier in the day during the U.S.-Algeria FIFA World Cup match.

“We could talk about Roger Federer,” Parker added. Then, in a possible preview of their new show, Spitzer and Parker debated Federer’s performance at Wimbledon, with Spitzer bringing up his old high school tennis partner John McEnroe.

“Sports is a good metaphor for this show,” Spitzer tells TVNewser.

In other words friendly competition, presented in a less-bombastic way than what was once a staple of the departed “Hannity & Colmes” on Fox News, “Equal Time” on MSNBC and, of course, “Crossfire.”

Will viewers prefer it to the traditional straight reporting that had dominated the 8 p.m. hour on CNN or give in to opinion? Only time will tell.