It's a tough time to be a CNN executive.
Days after the departure of anchor Rick Sanchez following comments on radio that echoed stereotypes about Jews running the media, they saw a deluge of negative reviews pour in for Monday's debut of Parker/Spitzer, the 8 p.m. show aimed at rescuing the cable news channel's prime-time lineup.
The Sanchez debacle took on a new dimension Tuesday, as the anchor's wife, Suzanne, posted a message on her Facebook page blaming her husband's meltdown on fatigue and noting that he apologized to Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart — who he called a bigot — over the telephone.
"They had a good talk," she posted in a widely quoted status message. "Jon was gracious and called Rick 'thin-skinned.' He's right."
But even while his wife was passing along Sanchez's apologies, the whole incident was inspiring a debate over whether what he said was actually a slur.
During a Thursday satellite radio interview, Sanchez implied Stewart lampooned him because of his Cuban heritage, recalling how an unnamed CNN executive compared him with another Hispanic reporter at ABC News. "Everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart, and a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart," he said then. "And to imply that somehow they, the people in this country who are Jewish, are an oppressed minority? Yeah."
Columnist Christopher Hitchens, in a column for the online magazine Slate, suggested Sanchez should get his job back, writing "he didn't descend into saying that there was Jewish control of the media." Pulitzer Prize-winning, former Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg, who is Jewish, told National Public Radio he "found nothing inflammatory about his comments," even while noting that Sanchez should have been fired long ago simply for not being a good newscaster.
Hardly the media buzz CNN executives wanted one day after the debut of Parker/Spitzer, their 8 p.m. show featuring former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Pulitzer-winning columnist Kathleen Parker.
Unfortunately, critical reviews of the show were nearly as bad. I saw it as an exercise in televised desperation, reminiscent of MSNBC about eight years ago, when it was floundering for viewers in the wake of Fox's post 9/11 surge and handing host gigs to everyone from Jesse Ventura to Michael Savage.
CNN's Ventura just may be Spitzer, trying to rehabilitate his image after leaving office amid a prostitution scandal.
Parker may have helped soften and broaden Spitzer, but there was little doubt who was the star. In this setting, Parker seemed a little superfluous, like a devoted spouse throwing a dinner party for her husband's office. And the hosts interrupted their guests so much, I began to wonder if they had an unofficial rule that no one was allowed to complete a thought before being jerked onto the next subject.
In the end, I think Monday's Parker/Spitzer presented an interesting format lacking good material — too breezy for serious talk, too wonky for entertaining diversion.
And too confused to help CNN out of a serious spate of bad luck.