By Lori Acken
John King, CNN’s chief national correspondent and anchor of the network’s new Sunday morning news show State of the Union (which recently lured executive producer Michelle Jaconi from the time slot’s NBC titan Meet the Press) understands the appeal of the comedic news satire programs and uberopinionated prime time current events shows which have become big audience draws in recent years.
Just don’t expect him to jump on the bandwagon.
“Some people watch those shows because they’re provocative,” King explains. “I watch some of them, because I learn. It’s like intelligence gathering. Some people go to those shows because they can be fun. Sometimes they’re shout festivals, but sometimes it’s provocative, challenging conversation. My idea is, ‘Let’s have a show with provocative conversation with all views — not just one view.’ My goal is to try to have that conversation, but involve everybody. Let the people watching make the decision.”
Do they ever. Bloggers examine King’s every guest, every comment, every question for telltale hints of political leaning — usually hammering their perceived context into something that pairs up with foregone conclusions. “Some days I am apparently Satan to the left and on some days I am Satan to the right,” says King “If that happens just about equally, then I assume I am trying to do my best and I am somewhere in the middle where I belong.”
While King believes there is danger in viewers only choosing news programming that embraces a particular ideology, he begrudges no one their program or programming choices — choosing to merely let the lessons learned guide his own professional habits.
“It reinforces my determination to be as objective as possible” King says. “I’m not perfect. I don’t pretend to be perfect. But I try, in everything I do, to be respectful of all opinions and to solicit all opinions. To ask questions to try and cover the broad range of the spectrum. I do this myself and I try to impress upon the staff of the show how important it is to make sure we’re entertaining different voices.”
And not entertaining for the sake of entertainment alone.
“My training is as an AP Wire guy before I came into television,” Kings says. “So I speak for myself in this regard when I say that I am a little bit more of a dinosaur in that I say ‘Well, why would I do this?’ and ‘What is the news value of that?’
“I don’t want to be viewed as an entertainer. I want to be viewed as somebody who is a source of information for people. There are a lot of people on television now. You have all these talk shows now. And when you turn on the television — from 5 o’clock in the morning through late-night television — there are people on TV talking. So we need to be very careful to delineate — as we do on [State of The Union] — this is a conversation with a Senator, a politician, a newsmaker, an administration official. This is a conversation with one of our reporters; they are giving you objective information from their news gathering. This person is an analyst, they have an opinion and you should understand their opinion when they speak. They are not speaking as an objective person — they are speaking as a person with an opinion.
“The lines need to be carefully drawn, so that when there is a big news day — whether it’s an upbeat, positive news day, or God forbid, a tsunami or a 9/11 — when the people see you in that box, they trust you. And they trust that you are telling them facts and relevant information to the best of your ability — that you’re not trying to perform.”
Asked about the recent brouhaha in which liberals, conservatives and folks of every political inclination in between found themselves up in arms over the suggestion that Rush Limbaugh is more than just entertainer, more than just show host but de facto head of the Republican party, King is resolute. But not in the way you might expect. Or maybe — hopefully — exactly the way you would.
“This is where those lines need to be careful — this is where they are imperative,” he exclaims. “Rush would not tell you, if he were on the other end of this phone call, that he’s an objective journalist! He would tell you that he is a conservative talk show host. And he would be telling you the truth. That’s what he does. And he is an important voice. He is.
“I cover politics. And I ask people this question, whether they are Dick Cheney or whether they’re Joe the plumber — not the guy from the campaign. Or Joe the car mechanic. Or Sally the nurse. When I travel, I ask people all the time, if they tell me they’re a conservative, I ask them, ‘Do you listen to Rush?’ Just to see. ‘Do you listen to Dr. Dobson? Who do you listen to? Who do you trust?’
“A great number of people trust Rush. And even people who don’t like Rush study him to see what the other side is thinking.
“I do something very different — but that’s not to criticize Rush. Choice is good. If Rush said, ‘I am the equal of Wolf Blitzer or Katie Couric,’ that would scare me. If he were trying to project to people that he was an objective news anchor. But he doesn’t try to do that. He is very clear about who he is. And I have no problem with that. None whatsoever.
“Is he in a business? Is he trying to generate ratings? God forbid! Yes, he is. But he also doesn’t hide who he is. There ARE some people out there who sometimes try to hide who they are. In Rush’s case — and again, I am not defending him — Rush does not present himself as anything other than a conservative talk show host, a conservative radio host. That’s who he is.”
Watch State of the Union with John King Sundays 9am-1pm ET and 8pm ET.
For our complete interviews with John and his colleague Rick Sanchez, log on to channelguidemag.com in May.