King of bad journalism

Amid all the praise for Larry King as he prepares to depart, I hate to rain on his parade but the truth is that much of what he did was bad journalism. He used up an entire hour at an all-news network to give celebrities free publicity, at a time when I and other CNN Washington correspondents were trying to ask the tough questions that journalists need to ask. Most of the time King’s questions weren’t even softballs. They were  invitations to celebrities to tell us how wonderful they are. And the worst moment of all came on Jan. 18, 2001.

That was when King was on the stage with newly-elected President George W. Bush. It was at a pre-inaugural party paid for by Bush supporters and carried live on CNN. The decision had been made by CNN to let King host the event, a decision that CNN execs later regretted, since this clearly created the appearance of pro-administration bias by an employee of a news organization. Good journalists are supposed to not only be detached but adopt an adversarial relationship toward the powerful. That evening Larry King did the exact opposite.

To make it worse, at one point he rushed up to Bush and hugged him.

I watched in dismay, and so did most other journalists. As CNN reporter John King (no relation) later put it: “I watched in shame and horror.”

For the many people in this country who suspect that news media are biased, this seemed to be proof, live on TV, that journalists take sides in politics and distort the news. The reality is that I did everything I could in my thirty-four years as a journalist to be as objective as is humanly possible, and so did most other journalists I knew. But all of our efforts to be impartial seemed undercut by that one shameful hug.

To be sure, King did provide entertainment for viewers, and, at least until recently, high ratings for CNN. Occasionally he did ask a good question. But most of the time he missed opportunities to confront the powerful. Journalists are supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but Larry King just comforted the comfortable. What a shame.

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5 Comments

Filed under CNN, media bias, news media

5 responses to “King of bad journalism

  1. Jim Vitak

    Tony, I have respect for you and your opinion. I, too, hope we’ll have more, rather than less, insightful journalism some day. As a former 20-year practitioner myself, I know the effort it requires. Sadly, I found your comments about Larry a bit unseemly and maybe even naive. Larry’s made mistakes. You’ve pointed out some. But to purport that his prime-time hour of interviews was bad journalism is a presumption that only aggressive interviewing and the filter of ‘serious journalism’ is the way to serve information to the public. I know from experience that sometimes getting out of the way and seeing what spills from an interviewee’s mouth can be more revealing than the ‘gotcha’ question. Ethics, objectivity and all the rest of Journalism 101 are at least as important as ever. But some people –maybe many — probably aroused an appetite for understanding our world better simply by first having the exposure to ideas and issues that Larry provided. That inquisitiveness can then be further fed by all the serious journalists and Tony Collings who inhabit our media maelstrom.

  2. Michael Johnson

    This post is right on target though perhaps a bit too kind. Larry King is a man with that awful combination of limited intelligence and monumental ego. He hungered to be part of the celebrity culture that afflicts American life. As Prof. Collings writes, King has been an embarrassment to television journalism for almost three decades. To top it off, he has been slowly dying on camera over the past six months. In his shmooze session with Michael Jackson’s brother recently he was slumped in his chair and doubled up like a pretzel. I thought he was going to pop right then and there. He has become just too pathetic to watch. He should have been eased into a small room in a rest home years ago but I guess the women down the hall would not have been safe.

  3. Kevin Meyer

    Thanks to you Mr. Collings for saying something that needed to be said publicly. Larry King made himself a parody and his name, a punchline. To call him a journalist is an insult to those of us who ever wore the badge with honor. His softballs–better yet–snowflakes were cring inducing; summed up, his “questions” equated to asking the powerful: “So (insert name here), what’s it like to be so wonderful?”

    The Larry King of Suck-Up is soon to be gone. I fear what/who comes next. Sarah Palin? Ryan Seacrest? Pat Sajak?

    P.S. Spend more time with family??? Which one? Which wife? Surely, he must be joking.

  4. Majeda Hussein

    King has had his moments, and he is entertaining, with his suspenders and glasses..but not interesting. I find his show to be a waste of an hour. I would rather watch someone who challenges the powerful, like (dare I say it) John Stewart!

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