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Reese Schonfeld

Reese Schonfeld

Posted: March 9, 2011 04:49 PM

Bill Clinton or Eliot Spitzer: An Eleventh Anniversary Rumination


Today, as I was walking to work, people were screaming from St. Patrick's Cathedral with ashes on their foreheads. It reminded me that today was an anniversary--11 years and one day since I suggested that CNN fire Larry King and hire Bill Clinton to fill his primetime news slot.
Two days before, Ted Turner, had announced his resignation as CEO of Turner Broadcasting. The next day, Ash Wednesday, he made a farewell visit to the CNN Washington bureau, where he thanked his employees for their hard work and dedication. When he noticed that some of the employees had ashes on their foreheads, he asked why they were there--he thought that people who celebrated Ash Wednesday were all working for Fox News. The remark had been picked up by the press and was the subject of much discussion.

By coincidence, that was the day that my book, Me and Ted Against the World, was released and the first stop on my book tour was Fox News. Naturally the host's first question was whether Ted was anti-Catholic. I replied that Ted was anti-everybody--an equal opportunity bigot. After that was settled, the anchor's next question was "What would you do if you were still running CNN?" I suggested that I'd try to hire Bill Clinton to preside over an hour-long primetime interview program with the top news maker of the day as his guest. Given who he was and what he had been, I thought he could get the best guest in the world every night. Newspapers around the country picked up the story, and the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed that my proposal was "not a good idea, it was a great idea."

Given the encouragement from the Chronicle, I decided to try to make it happen. I called Bob Barnett, Clinton's lawyer/agent, and asked if Bill would be interested. Barnett indicated that he might be and he wanted to hear more. I immediately put in a call to Walter Isaacson, who had moved from Time magazine to become the President of CNN. I called him several times, delivered Barnett's message to Isaacson's secretary, left messages on his answering machine, but I never heard from him. Neither did Barnett or Clinton. Within a year, Bill O'Reilly was beating the hell out of Larry King just about every night, and CNN went deeper into its downhill slide.

This may seem like old news, but for some reason, the site of ashes on foreheads immediately brought to mind the comparison of Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer. Both Clinton and Spitzer were elected to high office, and both were guilty of sexual indiscretions. Clinton served out his term, Spitzer was forced to resign. Clinton was ignored by CNN, while Eliot Spitzer was sought out. Spitzer is now the sole host of an hour on CNN's primetime, while Bill does good works around the world through the Clinton Foundation. Even at this late date, I ask all of you media mavens, who you think is more likely to attract an audience--the charming, charismatic Clinton, or the mean and menacing Spitzer?

The camera seemed to love Bill Clinton, and while Spitzer loves the camera, it does not seem to love him back. It is surprising to me that after 32 years on the air, CNN has still not learned that on TV the messenger is more important than the message. On this 11-year-later Ash Wednesday, I ask, who would you rather deliver a message to you--Bill Clinton or Eliot Spitzer?