CNN's Jon Klein: We're Not Endorsing One Side or Another

Network's president on Spitzer show, Larry King and the future of primetime

CNN president Jon Klein — who has stubbornly resisted the rising tide of “partisan” news programming — spoke to TheWrap on Wednesday about the network's new show featuring a pair of ideological sparring partners: Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York, and Kathleen Parker, the conservative columnist.

How long have you been thinking about a show like this?

Well, when you say a “show like this,” what do you mean? What we’re doing is betting on two incredibly smart individuals who have a fantastic chemistry, a real grasp of the issues of the day. They are two of the most intelligent and outspoken figures in the country. That’s what we’re banking on. I got to know them a little bit over the last few months. I’ve been reading Kathleen’s columns, and have been reading Eliot on Slate and seeing him on various shows. And they both have superior intellect. And superior fearlessness, on both sides on the aisle. They both don’t care no matter whose ox is being gored. It will make for some compelling television.

You’re always softly thinking about things, and always have (new concepts) on the radar. But in this case, things accelerated when Campbell Brown came to us and said she would step aside and go do whatever it is she is going to do. So I’d say the last two months.

Who else did you consider as hosts?
I don’t want to get into specific names, because how would that make them feel? We looked at a wide swath of people.

You've long resisted opinion-based programming. Why the change?
We’ve never resisted opinion. If you’ve watched our election programming, we’ve quite famously had a wide range of opinions on those shows. What we have resisted is having our anchors insert their personal points of view for an hour and shoving them down people’s throats. What we want to do here is facilitate lively, smart discussion, with multiple points of view. It’s not that we’re suddenly endorsing one side or another. This country already has a super-conservative network and super-liberal network.

How does this concept differ from "Crossfire"?
"Crossfire" was a pre-programmed, predictable, "Punch and Judy" show. There is nothing predictable about these two. There are many, many ways (this show) will be different. I think viewers will be surprised where they end up. I think Kathleen and Eliot will help all of us think differently about how we can approach what we do.

What about the risk of bringing in Eliot Spitzer? From a public relations or image standpoint, it would seem to be a risk.
I think any baggage any viewers have about him will be washed away when they see the show. It’s going to be intelligent conversation between two adults, both of whom are free of vested interests, beholden to no one. They are renowned for it.

What is the future of prime-time at CNN?
That’s a very broad question, isn’t it?

OK, I’ll ask a very narrow one: Are you considering a replacement for Larry King?
[Laughs] We’re so focused on this show, and what we’re doing at 8 o’clock. Hiring an executive producer, building the studio. (A replacement) for Larry King is not a priority.

What role is Campbell Brown going to play moving forward?
She hasn’t announced what she’s doing yet. She’ll be hosting her show until the end of July. And then she’ll leave. I’m not sure what she’s planning.

There are plenty of pundits, myself included, who have been offering their unsolicited suggestions about how to fix CNN ("5 Ways to Save CNN"). Two questions: Does CNN need fixing? And do you consider those options?
I love it. I love that people offer ideas. It means that people really care. CNN is a fixture in the American consciousness. In the global consciousness really. I’ll give you an example. I am a huge Yankees fan. And I have opinions about every little thing they do, and offer them to anyone that will listen.

Do you think Joba should be a starter or a reliever?
Exactly. That answer depends on the day, right? And the thing is, every Yankees fan thinks their opinion is the opinion that matters. We have legions of people who care deeply about what we do. Look at this week. We’ve had wall-to-wall coverage on (General Stanley) McChrystal, amazing first-hand accounts in the Gulf with Anderson Cooper. We’ve had hundreds of people in the Gulf. We have an important primetime documentary ("Gary and Tony Have a Baby") hosted by Soledad O’Brien, who is incomparable. And Dr. Sanjay Gupta did two incredible hours on “Toxic America.” So I ask you, do we need fixing?