Larry King: Leaders, divas and playing softball

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File photograph of Larry King with Ross Perot
Image caption,
An interview with presidential hopeful Ross Perot was crucial in establishing Larry King's reputation

We tend to caricature people who have been on television for a long time, and that is certainly happening to Larry King as he reaches the end of his 25-year stint in CNN's prime-time line-up.

It's tempting to reduce him to the guy with the colourful suspenders (or braces, as they are known in the UK) and the voice made of ground gravel, the interviewer who perfected the unapologetic pivot from serious to celebrity, often within the same show ("Thanks for that analysis, Senator Dole… and coming up next, Celine Dion!").

But this underestimates the significant and lasting marks that Larry King will leave on the American media landscape.

First of all, Larry King really helped put CNN on the map.

It is easy to forget that when he was hired back in 1985, CNN was still struggling to establish itself alongside the then-dominant broadcast network news divisions.

He did not single-handedly turn that equation on its head, of course, but he landed big, news-making interviews from the beginning, and played a very important role in the rise of CNN, and of cable news networks in general.

'Perot principle'

A crucial figure in that process was Ross Perot.

When the diminutive Dallas industrialist used King's show to announce his presidential candidacy in 1992, it drew huge national attention to both of them.

For months after, Mr Perot's appearances on the programme earned big ratings, gave late-night comics endless sources of material, cemented Larry King's place on the national stage, and created no small amount of controversy.

It struck some observers that King was operating less as newsman than as pitchman for Mr Perot, offering him an uncritical platform for his pie charts and policy pronouncements.

Image caption,
Larry King moved easily between interviewing world leaders and entertainment divas

It was left to other journalists to unpack some of Mr Perot's wackier ideas, and when they did, it took a bit of the lustre off King's "exclusives".

Still, his place in the centre of America's political landscape was secured, and ever since, a stop by his studio has become almost a requirement for anyone who aspires to the White House.

What might be called the Perot Principle is such an important part of King's legacy because it has spread far beyond 9pm weeknights on CNN.

As established with Ross Perot and countless other politicians and celebrities, King is known for going pretty easy on his interview subjects, avoiding the really difficult questions (or at least asking them extremely delicately).

I am sure that King would say he offers simple fairness and grace, and that he is happy to leave the "gotcha" questions and relentless grilling to others.

Fair enough.

But a lot of people have agreed to appear on his show precisely because they know they will have an easy time of it, and that in turn has caused competitors in the booking wars to shave some of the rough edges off their interviewing style as well.

Gentle treatment

This doesn't matter much if it is Lady Gaga sitting in the chair, but when it's a presidential candidate or public official?

American politicians now often choose their interviewers based primarily on how gently they expect (and are assured) they will be treated, and Larry King bears some of the responsibility for that.

In Britain, by contrast, public officials know they must regularly subject themselves to rigorous questioning from interviewers who often seem more like interrogators, and both the public and the politicians are better off for it.

The roster of guests for King's last few shows points up another essential piece of his legacy.

Who else interviews Vladimir Putin and Garth Brooks, Tony Blair and Jon Bon Jovi, all in the space of a week or two?

There are not many talk show hosts on the planet who move as effortlessly between world leaders and entertainment divas, between substance and fluff.

Some have faulted King for blurring the line between hard news and tabloid nonsense, but I am not sure that's fair.

He has always seemed comfortable in both realms, and he's been unapologetic about it.

There have been stretches when it appeared that he wanted to tack in a more serious direction, only to be sent back towards celebrity by the ratings winds.

In the early 1990s, I used to imagine Larry in conversation with the devil: "OK, Lucifer, I'll do nine straight shows about OJ Simpson, but then you promise to let me do one on the budget deficit, right?".

Larry King has always been in close touch with his audience, some of whom have dialled in to the show - "Des Moines, you're on the air!" - and he has always seemed to me to be trying to give them a full measure of what they wanted, mixed with a dash of what they needed.

For better or worse, that is a recipe that has matched modern America pretty well.

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