For his second act, disgraced New York politician Eliot Spitzer is headed to the limelight. On Monday, he starts a new job as co-host of a high-profile new talk show on CNN. The former New York governor, who resigned in the wake of allegations that he had visited prostitutes, will appear alongside Kathleen Parker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative journalist, at the helm of “Parker Spitzer” in the 8 p.m. news slot.
The buzz has run the gamut, with some people excoriating the flagging cable network for resorting to gimmickry and titillation and with others praising Mr. Spitzer for a rare intelligence (with a few notable lapses). But what may be most noteworthy about the moment is what it says about us, says Michael Robinson, senior vice president of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington.
“As the worlds of entertainment and politics increasingly merge,” he says, we are in the midst of what he calls a “consummate Marshall McLuhan moment, meaning the message and the medium are all becoming one.” Rather than the journalists reporting the news, the news itself – meaning Spitzer and all the baggage he carries into his new role – becomes the reporter.
“I only wish Marshall could be here to see it,” he says with a laugh.
Not all that long ago, CNN stood for more meaningful journalism than a quick grab for celebrity sizzle, says Jon Friedman, media editor for MarketWatch in New York. “Spitzer does not deserve such a chance,” he says, noting the lack of evidence that the politician has even the basic skills required for a talk-show host, from interviewing chops to journalistic credentials.
“Look at the person that show is replacing,” Mr. Friedman points out. Reporter Campbell Brown had a long and distinguished résumé before she was given a shot at prime time.
“Americans are a forgiving people, and that’s a good thing,” says Jeffrey McCall, a communication professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “But it does not mean that individuals such as Spitzer who have betrayed a public trust should be given a singular chance simply because of that betrayal,” he says, adding that there is no reason to believe CNN would have had interest in the untried politician were it not for the notoriety he brings with him.
However, recent history fairly brims with fallen public figures who have found redemption through the media – from former Mayor Roger Hedgecock in San Diego to former Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas Finneran in Boston, both of whom moved to radio spots after public falls, points out political scientist and author Lara Brown (“Jockeying for the American Presidency”). She agrees that Americans are generally willing to forgive and move on, if not entirely forget. But what particularly interests her is how various figures have drawn lessons from their journeys, especially their setbacks.
In studying American presidents, she’s found that the ones who ultimately won, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, learned from many failures. Both the winners and losers experienced many failures in their lives, but, she notes, “the ones who ultimately won were the ones who truly learned from the mistakes and changed.”
Spitzer’s “second act” is the focus of a new documentary, “Spitzer Uncut,” from filmmaker Stephen Trombley, president of Worldview Pictures. “I’m not so interested in his mistake,” says the director, because after doing interviews with many figures, including death-row inmates, “I find they have little of great insight to throw on the ‘why’ of a mistake,” he says.
Frankly, he says, visiting a prostitute is not on the scale of many other crimes. But, he adds, “Eliot Spitzer is an extremely intelligent man, and how he navigates a life after losing everything is interesting to me and, I would hope, valuable to others.” The two-hour film comes out on DVD Friday.