January 28, 2021

Larry King was scarfing his dinner — takeout Chinese in a Styrofoam tray. Time was short: He’d rushed to a spartan office in CNN’s Washington bureau from his radio studio across the Potomac in Virginia and was about to go on the air with his nightly cable TV talk show, “Larry King Live.”

It was 1993 and I was a 25-year-old researcher and writer. King’s publisher recruited me to help him finish a book about his unexpected role as the multimedia master of ceremonies for the previous year’s three-way race for president.

“I read the book yesterday,” he told me between bites.

“Oh. What did you think?” I asked.

“I liked it.”

We talked a bit more about his upcoming two-part appearance on NBC’s “Today” show (two spots!) and other promotional appearances. Then I asked, “When are you recording the audiobook?”

“I did it,” King said. “Yesterday.”

King may have read our completed book for the first time when he recorded the audio edition. That’s amusing but probably won’t surprise critics who knew he rarely read the books that guests came on his show to promote. He wanted, he said, to be more like his viewers and listeners, who he assumed hadn’t read them either.

That would be a serious weakness for the journalist King never claimed to be.

“I’m an interviewer, a TV and radio personality — an entertainer,” he said in our book, offering a defense many of today’s cable TV “news” hosts also make. “I’m no Ted Koppel.”

But King recognized the needs of his audience — and America — in ways that have grown only more important in media and politics today. At the peak of his influence in the early 1990s, he had a connection with many different types of people who tuned in, despite a growing disconnect between the public and the press.

King’s “softball questions,” his rambling USA Today column and his anything-for-a-buck reputation never impressed many journalists. But focusing just there risks missing some of the innovations he and his producers brought to cable news.

Larry King was a talk radio guy first — and he tirelessly hosted a radio show and a national TV program at the same time for nine of his 25 years at CNN. The CNN show combined parts of the daytime talk TV format of Mike Douglas and Phil Donahue with the interactive call-in element of talk radio. (“Poughkeepsie, you’re on the line …”)

During the first Iraq war in 1991, King effectively emceed CNN’s live coverage in prime time. After that, his show became a major stop for public officials and political candidates. “Larry King Live” helped Texas billionaire Ross Perot launch his independent campaign for president in 1992. Others noticed.

The broadcast networks quickly copied King’s format on their morning shows during the 1992 presidential campaign with “town-hall” style interviews — now another TV news staple. Suddenly that fall, we watched the first town-hall presidential debate in Richmond, where a group of undecided voters were asking the questions, with Carole Simpson of ABC News in the role of Larry King-style moderator. King thought the debate was too staid.

King’s questions were rarely hard-hitting, but he got newsy answers anyway. In 1993 Perot’s cantankerous performance on King’s show failed to sway supporters of the NAFTA trade agreement in a live debate with Vice President Al Gore. But politicians and commentators have cited and echoed Perot’s points from that debate ever since.

Vice President Al Gore and Ross Perot talk with television talk host Larry King during a break on CNN’s “Larry King Live” show in Washington, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 1993, where Gore and Perot debated the North American Free Trade Agreement. (AP Photo/George Bennet)

The year before, King asked Dan Quayle, a conservative, anti-abortion Republican, what the vice president would say if his daughter came to him “with that problem that all fathers fear.” What respectable newscaster then would ask such an indelicate question? None. But Quayle answered, saying he would “support her on whatever decision she made.” That was news.

King’s producers creatively engineered “news” moments too — like having George Stephanopoulos, then-candidate Bill Clinton’s campaign spokesman, call in with a question during President George H.W. Bush’s appearance on the show. The year before, Bush’s commerce secretary, Robert Mosbacher, phoned in to challenge Perot’s opposition to the looming war with Iraq. Good TV, but not good journalism. Many news people recognized these as stunts — yet they covered them.

King loved politics and politicians, whom he schmoozed with daily over lunch, chomping through matzo bread at Duke Zeibert’s restaurant — a legendary hangout for lobbyists in Washington’s K Street corridor. He and I recorded hours of interviews there for the book, frequently interrupted by passing political luminaries. But King wasn’t a policy guy. He would never fire “Meet the Press”-like questions about the nuts and bolts of Clinton’s health plan, or Perot’s blueprint to balance the budget.

But he did ask them to explain what they planned to do.

As journalists rolled their eyes and complained about the surface questions, King’s audience got a little bit more informed. Listeners and viewers didn’t get it as deeply as the Capitol press corps did, but they got to hear some of it directly from the candidate, unfiltered. That was the shape of things to come, as talk radio, cable TV and the soon-to-rise internet provide many more direct channels for politicians to reach the public, circumventing the press altogether.

Also familiar today: King was not one to let facts get in the way of a good story. That was a worry for me because my name would also be on the cover. We handled that by pairing his recollections with takes of others involved in the events he described.

King’s show could have provided a template for cable news — a format that largely avoided the shouting and partisan takes that dominate cable news today. This “guy from Brooklyn” was open about his personal politics (Democratic), but his politics weren’t the heart of the show. He was popular with a broad national audience, both on TV and the radio. Truck drivers were said to be some of his most loyal listeners. But a different model was emerging.

By the time CNN turned King into a TV star, Rush Limbaugh and other more overtly partisan talk radio hosts were already on the rise too — freed in the 1980s from the regulatory limits of a fairness doctrine that once required political balance in over-the-air news broadcasts. That development in King’s beloved radio world set the stage for the next phase of cable news, too. Four years after Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, Fox News made its debut.

When King retired from CNN in 2010, his show was coming in third behind his rivals on Fox and MSNBC — with less than half the program’s peak audience of 1.6 million viewers in 1998.

King’s post-CNN career as a TV pitchman and interviewer for outlets like Russia’s generally propagandistic RT did not improve his reputation among his critics. But looking back on some of the things he and his CNN team pioneered, it’s hard not to wish for a cable news program more like “Larry King Live” today — where a broad range of guests talked to an even broader range of listeners.

The King of cable has died. Long live King’s audience —– if there is an audience like his anymore.

Mark Stencel is co-director of the Duke Reporters’ Lab, where he also teaches journalism. He was the co-author of Larry King’s 1993 book “On the Line, the New Road to the White House.

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Mark Stencel (@markstencel) is co-director of the Duke Reporters' Lab, where he studies the spread and impact of political fact-checking. He is NPR's former managing…
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