I had been questioning myself in recent days as to whether or not I was making too much out of the Eliot Spitzer hiring at CNN. Last night, as I was writing about Larry King stepping down, I decided I was not. There is a major change taking place, and it has huge implications for the kind of information we receive.
Here's why the moves at CNN matter: I have come to believe that we are seeing a last changing of the guard in cable TV news, a move away from news, information and analysis being gathered and vetted within the standards of traditional journalism practiced at such places as the Washington Post or Baltimore Sun. Given CNN's U.S. base and global pre-eminence, this reliability of the information and commentary presented has enormous political consequences.
Do I think CNN is going to throw all standards out and go tabloid crazy or as ideologically mad as an evening with Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann? No, not at all. And there is some comfort in that.
But what I see with the hiring of Spitzer as co-host for an 8 p.m. show starting in the fall, and talk of either Ryan Seacrest (American Idol) or Piers Morgan (America's Got Talent) replacing King, is CNN/US President Jon Klein taking a page out of the book of Fox News and asking for the same dispensation critics and viewers have granted Rupert Murdoch's ratings-rich news operation. And I suppose, why not?
I am not talking politics or ideology here. I am not saying anything about where CNN is or is not going politically. But the critics have let Fox News get away with saying that it does straight, traditional news with anchors like Bret Baier and Shep Smith in the hours leading up to prime time, and then, they have a series of "opinion" show that are like op-edit pages in newspapers. Everybody knows the difference between the two kinds of shows, Fox News says, so what's the problem?
None of us who write about media have done a very good job of telling Fox or MSNBC, which follows the same formula from the other end of the political spectrum, that there is a problem -- or that we believe everyone doesn't know the difference between an anchorman or anchorwoman and a host. I have used the two interchangeably for years.
In fact, many of us have celebrated Fox for the ratings success and mocked CNN for its ratings troubles in prime time. I recall one of my colleagues quoting an unnamed analyst at the end of a major piece condemning CNN for not being "sexy' enough in presenting the news in prime time. This one is partially on all of us who have written such things.
The opinion shows on Fox, particularly Bill O'Reilly's at 8 and Sean Hannity's at 9, kill in the ratings. They are the top two shows on all of cable news, according to ratings released Tuesday by Nielsen Media Research. Personally, I enjoy watching O'Reilly and think he is a brilliant TV presence, but I don't want him giving me the news, and I do not trust that his analysis is ever free of ideological bias.
And now, Klein and CNN appear to want some of that -- and they are willing to trade on their overall reputation for accuracy, fairness, credibility and trustworthiness in hiring people like Spitzer.
CNN has its own Bret Baier and Shep Smith in Wolf Blitzer and John King already positioned as anchoring straight news shows leading into prime time. And now, we get Spitzer co-hosting with Kathleen Parker at 8, followed by someone like Seacrest or Morgan at 9. Make no mistake about it, this is major change in the kind of information Americans are getting on the channel that is still the brand for cable news despite its ratings woes.
The next question is what happens to Anderson Cooper at 10. I would think he is too much of a journalist to fit this new prime-time formula. I hope I am wrong. But up until two weeks ago, I was writing columns urging CNN to just say no to Spitzer. Hope against hope.
Maybe Cooper can move to the "news" block as opposed to the disgraced-former-governer-meets-reality-competition-show-host block.
Hey, here's an idea for 10 p.m. on CNN: Kate Gosselin. I'll bet she'll make a fast ratings dent in Greta Van Susteren's Fox News audience. Maybe her kids can be a next-generation corps of CNN correspondents. Think of how fast they'll bring down the demographic? It's perfect in the fabulous new cable news world where all that counts is ratings and demos, no?
I honestly don't know if I can blame Klein and CNN. In fact, I should probably praise Klein for holding the line as long as he has. And of course, Klein is right when he urges folks like me not to pre-judge. No final analysis can be rendered until we see the new prime-time shows on the air in the fall.
And, here's me hoping against hope again, but maybe Katie Couric will replace King, though, that possibility seems to have been shot down earlier this week in favor of Seacrest and Morgan. I'm serious, tell me Couric is doing a 9 p.m. show on CNN this fall, and I am dancing on the rooftops, but I am through trying to deny what the facts appear to be telling me about the future of prime-time CNN.
If I sound a little depressed, it's because I am.
The ratings that came out Tuesday show that the three network nightly newscasts -- the last places on TV for the traditional values of journalism (outside of PBS' reporting-challenged "NewsHour") that I believe are so crucial to this democracy -- lost another 1.05 million viewers in the last year.
And now it looks as if we are about to lose all of CNN in prime time. I hope not. But then, I'm the guy who urged CNN to just say no to Spitzer, and actually believed that if enough of us said that, it would make a difference. Hope against hope.