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02.28.11

Eliot Spitzer's Nasty CNN Parting Shot to Kathleen Parker

Eliot Spitzer is already moving on, with his new show up and running. But even off the air, Parker Spitzer ended much as it began—with Spitzer insisting on the last word.

Time moves quickly in the 24-hour culture of cable news. Just 72 hours after Kathleen Parker was kicked to the curb as co-host of CNN’s Parker Spitzer, her partner Eliot Spitzer was back on the air Monday evening as host of the brand-new In the Arena. Behind the scenes on Friday, the pair’s final act played out with characteristic discord.

That afternoon, in between taping sessions of their final show, Parker, Spitzer, and staff were in her office on the fourth floor of the Time Warner tower in midtown Manhattan. Parker said her good-byes, and as most of the group went back upstairs to the set, Spitzer lingered. The co-hosts were alone. The early, giddy days of their collaboration were four long months in the past.

Parker Spitzer was supposed to be a bold experiment—the pairing of Parker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, and Spitzer, the disgraced ex-governor of New York—that would crackle with chemistry and insight, and rekindle the fortunes of CNN in prime time. Instead the broadcast was dreary TV and a dud in the ratings. Details of the pair’s feuding played out in the press, and the atmosphere in her office Friday was frosty, according to a CNN staffer privy to their conversation.

You’re a talented writer, Spitzer told Parker, and you’ve won a Pulitzer Prize. For whatever reason, this TV thing just hasn’t clicked. Then, as he so often did on their program, he got in the last word.

“Remember,” Spitzer said. “Not everyone is good at everything.”

For Parker, it was merely the last in a string of discourtesies she experienced at CNN. From the show’s early weeks things had been taken away from her: stories she wanted to pursue, interviews with top newsmakers. Adding insult to injury, CNN had asked Parker—a winner of the H.L. Mencken Writing Award whose column appears in 400 newspapers—to lighten her hair color. By November, the network was refusing to pay for the salon work.

(Parker has been a contributor to The Daily Beast. She declined to comment for this article. Asked about Spitzer’s parting shot to Parker and other details of the show’s unraveling, a CNN spokesperson said The Daily Beast’s information was “not accurate” but declined to elaborate.)

"Remember," Spitzer told Parker. “Not everyone is good at everything."

Back upstairs at the Time Warner building Friday, Parker read a brief statement at the close of the program. “On a personal note, today is my last day on the show,” she said, “and I just want to thank you, the viewers, for tuning in. I look forward to seeing you down the road.” What no one in the control room told Parker was that the show that day had run some 20 seconds long. For anyone watching at home on a DVR, her farewell was cut off.

Spitzer never missed a beat. He returned to the air Monday evening on the refashioned In the Arena, which even has a new-look set. How could one be constructed so quickly? It’s actually the original set for Parker Spitzer, which CNN’s then-president Jon Klein rejected in the show’s early planning stages.

“I wish Kathleen all the best in continuing on with her spectacular career. It has been a joy working with her as a teammate, and I continue to be a huge fan of the wisdom that jumps from her written work and the wit, charm and insight she brings to all that she does,” Spitzer said in a statement. A CNN spokesperson said Spitzer would have no comment regarding his conversation with Parker or other aspects of their working relationship.

“While I am extremely proud of the show we created, and the subject matter and level of discourse Parker Spitzer promoted every night, it was a difficult decision to scale back my column a few months ago and, with the show going in a new direction, it is a good time to move on,” Parker said in the same CNN press release, adding that she will continue to make occasional appearances on the network.

Parker learned of CNN’s intent to oust her two weeks ago via a phone call from her lawyer, Washington power attorney Robert Barnett, according to a network staffer. But to many at CNN, Parker Spitzer—or at least the Parker part of it—never had a chance. Klein, its creator, was fired two weeks before the premiere. His exit left the program with no clear champion, and its middling ratings never improved, with the equivalent of half the viewers of MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann on a good night, and a tenth of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on a bad one. Critics wrote that Spitzer, with his fierce intellect and fiercer debating style, had a future on cable, but Parker never seemed to warm to the camera—a problem some insiders said could have been prevented with some basic support from CNN. “She was not skilled at reading the prompter -- and I can teach anyone how to be a good prompter reader in under a week," said one staffer who raved about dealing with Parker off-set. "I got the sense that nobody was interested in making her better,” this person said. And forget about chemistry. “They did not communicate at all, Eliot and Kathleen, off the set. It was a strange environment to walk into. It seemed somber, and unusually low-key for a dynamic, prime time TV show. The lack of relationship was quite obvious.”

Parker told colleagues that she had met with a camera coach three times, but that the only takeaway that emerged was to look at Spitzer when Spitzer was talking.

The Thursday and Friday of Parker’s second-to-last week, Spitzer was out and the cable network’s chief business correspondent, Ali Velshi, sat in. Said another CNN staffer close to the show: “Those two days were like a breath of fresh air for her, because she was sitting next to someone who liked her. And that makes all the difference in the world.”