CNN tried to hire Keith Olbermann and 7 other revelations

Michael Calderone
New York magazine on cable wars
New York magazine on cable wars

On Monday night, CNN will launch "Parker Spitzer," the network's latest 8 p.m. challenge to the higher-rated Keith Olbermann on MSNBC (and the even-higher-rated Bill O'Reilly on Fox News). But CNN wouldn't be going after Olbermann if recently ousted network president Jon Klein had his way in poaching Olbermann a few years back.

According to Gabriel Sherman's New York magazine cover story out Monday on the cable news wars, CNN seriously considered hiring the MSNBC star just as he was gaining traction speaking out nightly against the Bush administration.

"Jon and I were in very deep discussions on a regular basis for me to go over there," Olbermann told Sherman. "One of the premises was we would have put MSNBC out of business."

But not everyone was on board, including Klein's boss. CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton wasn't convinced that Olbermann was the right fit for the cable news pioneer. "I'm not gonna be the guy who's gonna turn CNN into an opinion network," Walton reportedly told executives in meetings.

Olbermann said that he "bailed out when it became apparent that the people above [Klein] were less than sanguine about this."

So Olbermann stayed put and CNN tried Campbell Brown at 8 p.m. Brown left amid poor ratings.

But she, Olbermann, Klein, new CNN hosts Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer, MSNBC President Phil Griffin, and MSNBC network stars like Joe Scarborough, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell all spoke to Sherman about the ways the two cable networks are "chasing Fox."

Beyond this timely revelation about Olbermann and CNN (#1), newsy nuggets are scattered throughout the lengthy piece. Here's a brief rundown:

2. Campbell Brown's decision: Campbell Brown, who abruptly resigned in May, described how in a last-ditch attempt at bigger ratings, Klein wanted her to start going after politicians nightly on the show. "I am not sure that picking a fight every night just for the sake of picking a fight is good journalism," Brown said, leaving shortly thereafter.

3. Before "Parker Spitzer": Klein's original idea was for a show called "The Investigators." Sherman writes: "When I visited Klein this summer, he still had the idea for the show marked on a whiteboard in his office. Listed alongside Spitzer's name was TARP special inspector general Neil Barofsky, Bernie Madoff whistle-blower Harry Markopolos, and Elizabeth Warren." Spitzer, however, didn't think he could hold public figures accountable as cable news host the way he could as New York attorney general. In that job, Spitzer said, he "had subpoena power.' "

4. MSNBC's leftward shift in prime time: MSNBC President Griffin noted that "Fox figured it out that you have to stand for something in cable," while describing how his network created a prime-time alternative to the right-leaning Fox. "What we're doing is targeting an audience," he said.

5. Scarborough for president: There have long been rumors that "Morning Joe" host Scarborough, once a Republican congressman from Florida, may someday return to politics. Sherman writes that Scarborough "called political advisers after his name was circulated as a possible candidate in the blogosphere, but he was counseled against it."

6. Maddow blasts O'Reilly: On her prime-time show, Maddow has slammed Fox News hosts as stoking racial fears in prime time. During a staff meeting, Maddow also made clear her feelings about O'Reilly after the Fox host criticized her on air. "Sorry, you really hurt my feelings, I am a loon," she said. "I'm on the Canadian dollar bill. It's awful"—she pauses—"but you, however, are also a race-baiting [expletive]."

7. The Dan Abrams era: Sherman describes some of the infighting at MSNBC when NBC legal analyst (and Mediaite founder) Dan Abrams managed the network. "Dan never really ran it," Olbermann counters. "He's always tried to ride my coattails." One Abrams idea that didn't pan out: changing the network's tagline to "MSNBC: Keepin' It Real."

8. The network once tried to buy the Huffington Post, but Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer turned down the offer. Also, Sherman writes, MSNBC "hired Spike Lee to shoot a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign and developed its own obtuse slogan: 'Lean Forward.'"