Cover Story

It's good to be King

CNN's Larry King talks about objective journalism, faith, and cultural decline. And, for the first time, suggests his days with struggling CNN might be numbered. Larry King leaving CNN? For a network already under siege by the scrappy Fox, an abdicating King could spell the end of an empire.

Issue: "Interview with Larry King," July 28, 2001

in Los Angeles-It's a battle for the heart of the heartland. Viewers in the so-called "Red States"-the ones that narrowly slipped George W. Bush into the White House-are discovering in droves that they don't have to get their news from the same old left-leaning networks. That's bad news for CNN, the venerable broadcaster nicknamed the "Clinton News Network" by conservatives in Washington. The alternative? Fox News Channel, a more conservative upstart that has surged to the top of the ratings in prime time. In the key 25- to 54-year-old demographic, Fox's audience has increased by 430 percent, while CNN's numbers have slid 28 percent. Even though CNN reaches more total households, Fox whips its rival by 30 percent in those markets where they compete head-to-head. Religious viewers are a driving force behind the exodus from CNN. At Fox they find plenty of reassuring faces, from outspoken Catholics like Sean Hannity to evangelical Protestants like Fred Barnes. Even John Moody, Fox's senior vice president for news, told The New York Times he is a practicing Catholic who believes the pope "may in actual fact be a living saint"-a far cry from Ted Turner's infamous description of Christianity as "a religion for losers." Still, CNN does have a secret weapon in this battle, and an unlikely one at that: a 67-year-old agnostic Jew from Brooklyn named Larry Zeiger. To his millions of fans, of course, he's known as Larry King, thanks to a Miami radio station manager who decided more than 40 years ago that "Zeiger" sounded too ethnic. Since his first awkward moments behind the microphone, Mr. King says, he's never actually worked a day in his life. Instead, he's made a career of doing what he loves: Asking questions of some of the world's most fascinating people. Americans, in return, seem to love watching his show. Despite the Fox nipping at his network's heels, Mr. King's hour of prime time continues to be one of the highest-rated shows on cable television. Indeed, although CNN has recently tried to build programs around its marquee names-Wolf Blitzer, Greta Van Susteren, and others-Larry King Live consistently doubles and even triples their ratings. Reared in New York and now living in Los Angeles, Mr. King's appeal is not limited to the self-conscious urban sophisticates living on the coasts. Indeed, he's uncannily popular with just the kind of middle-American conservatives that Fox seems to be targeting. Janet Parshall, whose conservative talk radio show is heard nationwide, says there is a simple reason for Mr. King's popularity: "His goal is not to impose his worldview on you.... Larry has mastered the art of getting out of the way so you can hear what the guest has to say. That's why he's king." As a frequent guest on Larry King Live, Mrs. Parshall says conservatives are "always treated with respect, consideration, and the utmost manners." She recalls one show on which Joan Rivers, another guest on the panel, began attacking her personally for her conservative views. "Larry stepped in and defended me. He said, 'No, she's a very nice woman, she's very well-respected.' I'll never forget that. I was touched beyond words that he came to my defense." To Mr. King, that's all part of the job. Although many of his broadcasting peers put on a higher-decibel, more confrontational act, he says his own style remains unchanged after 44 years. "I'm an infotainer," he declares, after rejecting labels such as journalist, reporter, and newsman. "I don't have an agenda. I'm there to entertain and to learn; I'm not there to have a soapbox.... I'm very opinionated off the air, but that's not my role on the air. We've gone through lots of changes in broadcasting, but I never wanted to be a fad. I don't think anybody would say I'm not fair, and I'm proud of that." He's one of the best-known, best-paid figures in the news business, but Mr. King has little use for those he describes as "media elites," or "the smug journalists inside the Beltway." He rejects the idea of media as gatekeepers, telling Americans what they should be thinking about and asking all the "right" questions of newsmakers: "There's a lot of highbrow journalists who think they're the judge and jury on what's important." Mr. King also dismisses the idea of objectivity in the news business, putting him at odds with reporters and anchors who insist their own ideology has nothing to do with their coverage. "All things are subjective," he says. "We are all subjective. The decision as to what ran first on the CBS Evening News last night was a subjective decision made by [Dan] Rather and others, trying to be objective, saying this is what I think ... is the most important thing. As soon as you say the word I, that's subjective." So what role does ideology play on Larry King Live? Although Mr. King is coy about revealing his own political leanings, he insists that ideology is not the basis on which he decides whether he likes a particular guest. "A lot of it is instinct," he muses. "You can like a person right away. I don't pre-judge. I don't have an opinion on a guest before I've met them. I can say, I didn't vote for them, that's fine. But I try not to have an opinion about them as a person.... If I am warm, if I am receptive, I will learn more." He cites Dan Quayle as a case in point. Mr. King is one of the few mainstream journalists who has admitted in print to liking the much-maligned vice president. How did he decide that he liked the man who was, at the time, the butt of all political jokes? It goes back to an appearance on Larry King Live. Mr. Quayle, on the air, was pointing out the inconsistency in laws that required his daughter to get permission to have her ears pierced, but not to have an abortion. The instinctive interviewer saw an opening for a question, and he took it: If she did come to him seeking permission for an abortion, what would he tell her? "Obviously I would counsel her and talk to her and support her on whatever decision she made," the vice president replied. To pro-lifers, that answer was unacceptably mushy, and Mr. Quayle spent the next several days back-pedaling on his position. But to Mr. King, the answer was honest and nonpolitical. "I thought him very human. I thought him first a father. I'm a father; I understand that." Fatherhood seems to weigh heavily on Mr. King these days. His book on the Clinton years, Anything Goes, is dedicated to his two young sons. "To Chance, born in 1999, and Cannon, born in 2000," reads the opening page. "I hope your years will not be a time where anything goes." It's a dedication as cryptic as it is intriguing. When asked for a clarification, Mr. King squints out the window of his 11th-story office. The famed "Hollywood" sign snakes along a hillside in the near distance, but the nostalgia in his voice suggests Mr. King is seeing something much further off. The master communicator feels something deeply, yet, for the first time, he has trouble putting it into words. "It's such a world in which things change so fast and fads come in and fads go out. I never thought I'd hear cursing on television, now I do. So this 'anything goes' aspect is an error that I'm glad I missed. Even though I was able to observe it, it didn't affect me as much as it might affect my kids. There's a loss of innocence in an 'anything goes' society. There's a lot to be said for some old values. That doesn't mean everything old was correct; there was a lot wrong. But when you get into an 'anything goes' concept, this disturbs me." His feeling of unease with the modern world is palpable yet vague. He searches for words to express what's wrong. He searches for solutions to problems he can sense but cannot quite articulate. And perhaps most fundamentally, he searches for something he has seen in others but has never found for himself. "I can't make that leap that a lot of people around me have made into belief that there's some judge somewhere," he says, still staring into the distance. "I have a lot of respect for true people of faith.... I've done so many interviews on it. I've always searched. But as someone said, 'Did you ever sit down and read the Bible cover to cover?' The answer's no, because I don't know who wrote it. I'm too in my head to be into faith. Faith is a wonderful thing. I envy people who have it. I just can't make the leap. "I remember as a kid, my father died when I was young, and that was unexplainable to me. The God of the Old Testament, I didn't like things He did. 'Abraham, sacrifice your son.' That always bothered me as a kid. I remember thinking, why would He do that to Abraham? As a test? So I said to myself, I don't know. I just don't know. That's still true to this day." By his own admission, Mr. King is an agnostic, which he defines as an "I-don't-know" person. He says his agnosticism makes him a better interviewer, since he's forever looking for answers to questions that others may not bother to ask. But he sees a difference between an I-don't-know position and an I-don't-care position, which seems to sum up the attitude most reporters take toward the subject of religion. "It's important to our culture," he says unabashedly. "Religion, which brought us a lot of the problems we have, also solved a lot of the problems. Religion has been so profound in the world, both good and bad. Sunday morning and Saturday morning is part of the fabric of America. Even when you don't go, it's still around you. God's around. The word God is around." Rather than pretend religion plays no role in American life, Mr. King is known for exploring every aspect of faith and spirituality on his show. He's talked to Billy Graham about the power of prayer and to Franklin Graham about what it means to be born again. Al Mohler explained why Baptists seek to convert others, Tim LaHaye talked about biblical prophecy, and James Dobson explained the Christian emphasis on family. Shows on the afterlife are common, from the nature of heaven and hell to using mediums to communicate with departed loved ones. The afterlife is a topic that clearly resonates with Mr. King, whose heart surgeries have made headlines. "Right now my opinion is, I hope there's an afterlife, but I think this is it. That's why I fear death. Religious people never fear death, only the sadness of losing someone. If I knew that I was going to go to a place that's better than this, why wouldn't I want to go now? That always confounded me." Such topics resonate with viewers, as well. While other mainstream news organizations ignore or even ridicule religion, consistently high ratings for shows about faith prove that Mr. King is hitting a nerve with the public. That ability to speak to viewers' concerns and to ask the questions they would ask is what makes Mr. King such a valuable franchise for CNN. While the rest of the network flounders-hundreds of layoffs, constantly shuffling shows, and top-level management turnover-Larry King continues to attract millions of viewers and top dollar from advertisers. But for how much longer? His contract with CNN expires in December 2002, and he has not yet committed to re-upping for another stint. Indeed, it was his personal respect for Ted Turner that kept him at CNN during the last round of contract negotiations, and Mr. Turner is gone now as a result of the merger between AOL and TimeWarner, CNN's parent company. Would the king consider switching kingdoms? "I would listen," he says, signaling for the first time on-the-record that his future with CNN is not certain. "I certainly have a great tie to CNN, and they've been very good to me.... But I've probably got one more really big contract left, and I would listen. CNN would have the edge. It's 'round the world, it's live. In every case with CNN, I've usually signed way in advance of the deadline, but I don't know what might happen." A departure by Mr. King would likely spell the collapse of CNN's prime time lineup-especially if he were to jump to arch-rival Fox. The corporate brass at AOL TimeWarner are sure to do everything in their power to keep that from happening. Given Mr. King's value to the network, look for CNN to offer him the world if he stays. Indeed, the Jewish kid from Brooklyn whose first broadcasting job paid $55 a week might soon become the highest-paid TV newsman on the planet. And even then, ever the agnostic, he'll probably wonder if there's something more.

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