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.