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John King is CNN’s chief national correspondent and the anchor of the hour-long John King, USA, which runs Monday through Friday at 7 P.M. eastern time and addresses the topical issues of the day. The show launched in March of this year. Prior to that, King was the host for CNN’s Sunday news program State of the Union with John King. King joined CNN in May 1997 and became chief national correspondent in April 2005. He served as CNN’s senior White House correspondent from 1999 to 2005.
His work has taken him across the country and around the globe, where he has interviewed heads of state and men in the street to report on breaking stories and features both national and international in scope. King spoke recently with Jerry Kavanagh.
Q. Your show is fast-paced and efficient. How and when does a typical day start?
King: No two days are the same, but most of them start before I go to bed. I look at some emails and send others to the staff. There are always some bouncing balls in play that you have to follow up on for the next day. I wake up and usually do my first couple of hours from home. I’m still old-fashioned in that I get the newspapers off the driveway. I also go on line and read a few others and look around at some of the political websites, and swap messages among the staff. I try to work out in the morning before I get to the office.
Q. So, even when the show is over, you’re always looking ahead?
King: I try to unwind a little bit, but if you’re trying to book a guest, you want to get those calls in early or in advance. We usually spend about a half hour after the show with a quick postmortem and then look ahead to the next day. But it’s a long day and we try to get everybody out the door.
Q. The research into a subject’s background can sometimes reveal interesting or unpredictable results. Any serendipitous revelations that resulted from your own research?
King: When you have a familiarity with people, that’s proof of smart legwork. With a lot of the best work that gets you a good interview or story, everybody wants to focus on the last piece of it. But it’s the first piece or the third piece that often gets you to the last piece. And it’s by doing the research that you know those little anecdotes. Maybe you have a mutual friend or grew up in the same place. Maybe you have shared interest in some activity. Those can help, of course. People are more willing to talk to someone who they think they might have a connection with or who they think is well informed. If you are just calling around randomly for an interview… hey, good luck. Part of that is common sense and part of it is just good street smarts to try to learn a little bit. The key is to get them to engage in a conversation with you. Once you start to develop a relationship of trust, maybe you’ll get there.
Q. Walter Mears, who won a Pulitzer Prize covering politics for the AP, took you aside when you were 24 years old and covering the Michael Dukakis campaign and told you to remember one thing: “You’d rather get it second than get it wrong.” That’s a lesson that still applies in this world of Twitter and blogging, when the competition to break news is greater than ever.
King: The competition to break news IS greater than ever. I like competition. I like the pace. I’m a high-energy, high-adrenaline person, but there’s no question that you need to be more disciplined and even more careful because there are a lot of things out there in the social networking/internet universe that are not journalism as I define it. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them. They just don’t abide by the same rules that I do.
King: Some of it is speculation. Some of it is gossip. Some of it is sometimes right, but not sourced the way you or I feel an obligation to do our jobs. So, you have to be more careful. The more complicated things get, the more back to basics you need to be. If you have simple, clearly defined rules by which you do your job, whether it’s a slow day or an ultra-high-speed day, those rules will serve you well.
Q. Fact-checking is sometimes taken for granted.
King: Yes, or people Google something quickly and see one thing that supports them and think, “Well, there. I checked.” That can be dangerous. So you have to make sure that you yourself understand. That’s why we check twice or thrice or four times, when necessary, on a sensitive subject. It’s one of the things that if you’re teaching or mentoring young people, to remind them that if it’s too easy, it might not be right. The internet is a great tool, but you have to realize that there are vulnerabilities. The first thing that pops up in a search engine is not necessarily a fact.
Q. Mother Teresa said, “Facing the media is more difficult than bathing a leper.” That was a saintly woman talking. Is it really that tough?
King: (laughing) I hope not. Look, I think it’s our job to be tough sometimes when the issues are hard. It’s our job to ask questions that sometimes make people uncomfortable. But it’s also our job to be fair and to be fair-minded and open-minded. Sometimes the relationship is adversarial by nature, and that tension is a necessary part of the equation. But it’s a shame when there are people out there who view us as the enemy.
Q. Ari Fleischer said, “The media’s job — and they’re the first to acknowledge it — is to find conflict wherever conflict can be found and to write about it, to highlight it.”
King: That is part of our job, but it’s not the only thing we do. We should be very open to human-interest stories. We should be very open to explain our stories. There are a lot of hard things before us: Where should the World Cup be? What does that process look like? What about this big deficit-reduction commission and the tough choices that it would force not only on politicians but maybe on the American people. Explaining things like that is very important.
Q. What about conflict?
King: I cover politics, and politics is about conflict. It’s about the conflict of ideas and the conflict of personalities. Sometimes it gets pretty feisty. Conflict does sell. It gets people’s attention. Conflict for the sake of conflict is a waste of time. But conflict about a big idea or issue is a good thing to have.
Q. Tom Brokaw said, “It’s all storytelling, you know. That’s what journalism is all about.” I know that you are a big sports fan. What's the most interesting story in sports to you these days?
King: I’m a Patriots fan, so I paid a lot of attention to Monday night’s game [with the New York Jets]. I’m a Boston guy by trade, so I have my obsessive watch on the offseason in baseball. And I’m a Wizards season ticket holder even though I’m a Celtics fan. It’s been interesting to watch the Gilbert Arenas comeback and John Wall’s rookie season. I connect them on purpose because to me that’s the interesting part of the story: Can this veteran who’s under a cloud find a way to have a productive playing relationship with this high-energy kid who clearly has a lot to learn about the NBA but is a star in the making? I love that.
Q. On your show you get directly to the heart of a story and discuss three or four big topics that concern the American people. What sports topics would you like to address?
King: I think the culture of sports is interesting. We’ve talked about doing some sports and decided against it. I do have a huge interest in sports and talk every now and then of dabbling into some sports journalism, just for fun and to learn more.
Q. Who would be on the panel?
King: I like competitors, which is why I’m a Derek Jeter fan even though I’m not a Yankee fan. A couple of years ago at the NBA All-Star game I had a great conversation with Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Chris Paul, and Steve Nash. We were breaking down Barack Obama’s basketball game. It was a treat. So, I could see myself sitting down with the distinguished gentleman Bill Russell and the outspoken contrarian Charles Barkley. Bill Walton’s always a fascinating guy to talk to because he’s a student of politics as well as a student of sports.
Q. What would you discuss?
King: I always wonder what the older guys think about the commercialization and the bigger money in sports nowadays. I’ve always admired Steve Grogan, the quarterback of the Patriots who never had a good offensive line and took a beating every weekend but came every day to play. I admire the tougher, older-generation guys, I guess. But it wouldn’t be one constant panel. You’d have to switch it, depending on the topics.
Q. It could be lively.
King: Russell’s an interesting guy. He didn’t give autographs and he wasn’t very friendly with the media for a lot of his career. It cracks me up to watch the Red Sox on NESN because there’s Jim Rice, sitting at the desk doing the postgame, and Jim Rice throughout his career, all he did was snarl and bark at reporters. It proves that all of us can have second and third chapters in our lives.
Q. The language of sports seems to pervade every aspect of our lives. Is there a sports metaphor that most closely describes the state of U.S. politics today?
King: Sure. I don’t know which party to assign which to, but you could say the Democrats are the Red Sox and the Republicans are the Yankees. The fact that they just plain hate each other and reflexively think the other guys are bad. And that’s a bad thing. Politics is sports because there are winners and losers. There are campaigns that are like seasons. In the end, after a long slog, somebody wins the most votes. It’s like winning the most games. So there are some useful parallels and, therefore, some occasions when borrowing the sports language is appropriate.
I do think one of the problems with our business right now is that we overdo it. You have to keep score in sports every day. You score every day in politics and you demean the process and the people in it sometimes. We’re guilty of that sometimes.
Q. Frank Deford said, “Sports is the easiest thing to write. It’s wins and losses and there are characters. Guys who write politics basically write sports now. They don’t write about issues and important stuff. They write the game of politics.” Who are the big winners in today’s game of politics? It does not appear to be the American people.
King: No, and that’s why we should not treat it as a game. Because whether social security survives and what needs to be done so that it’s there, not just for you and me but for our children, is not a game. Whether the federal government should stick to its guns and implement the Obama healthcare plan as passed or whether it needs to go back and tweak that in some way is not a game. There is a big debate now about taxes. There’s going to be a debate about whether gays can serve openly in the military. They’ve punted the issue of immigration reform for 10 years now in Washington. And no matter your position on the issue, look at the demographics of the country. It is a huge and consequential and important issue and it is not a game.
Q. What do you suggest?
King: To come at it from a sports perspective every time cheapens the process and demeans the product and ultimately insults the consumer, which is the American people. That’s why when there is a vote today on a certain issue, you can cover that in the first couple of paragraphs or the first couple of seconds [on the air] in a sports metaphor. Sometimes it’s irresistible; sometimes it’s appropriate. But we owe people more than that, and if we don’t give it to them we’re insulting their intelligence. There are too many huge, consequential things at stake.
Q. I’ve asked you this before: If you could secure an interview with anyone in sports, past or present, living or dead, who would it be?
King: Ted Williams.
Q. What’s the first thing you’d ask him?
King: (laughing) I could sure use some help with the curveball.
Q. That’s the same response you gave me a few years ago.
King: I’m laughing because Larry King just gave what I thought was a spectacular farewell interview in the Los Angeles Times. They asked him if he could do one interview, who would it be. And Larry said, “God.” And if he had just one question, what would it be? Larry said he would lean over to God and say, “I need your answer on this one because there’s a lot riding on it: ‘Do you have a son?’”
Q. God’s a big sports fan.
King: God’s involved in sports. Apparently for a long time, he’s rooted against the Cubs. That’s all we know.
Q. Usually athletes point skyward and attribute their success to God. But an NFL receiver a few weeks ago blamed God when he dropped a pass.
King: You should talk to Wolf Blitzer about that. Wolf’s from Buffalo. It’s one of the Buffalo Bills’ guys who had the ball in his hands and dropped it. He said, “The big guy obviously didn’t want me to catch that touchdown.”
Q. What’s the most pressing issue facing sports today?
King: I think the risk globally for all sports today is of a disconnect with people who don’t have money. I grew up a blue-collar kid in Boston who for a buck or three got into the bleachers at Fenway Park. I think that’s a $30 ticket now. Sports is the great equalizer in our society. The richest guy in America and the poorest kid can root for the same team just as passionately. And if professional sports become so economically out the reach of the little guy, that’s a shame. It’s big business now, and big business requires big revenue. All of the owners should worry about losing their connection with the average guy on the street who can’t afford it.
Q. Can sports play a role in national and international relations?
King: Sure. I spend some time at NBA charity events with people like Dikembe Mutombo, who goes home and helps build hospitals and schools. The celebrity, whether it’s in Hollywood or in sports, gets you some access and entrée and recognition. That can then lead to discussions about other issues, whether it’s the AIDS crisis in Africa or education issues around the world or hunger in inner-city America or some city in Africa. Sports is the glue that draws people together. When you have a community that’s organized for some reason, that’s a great opportunity to have other conversations about local or world affairs.
Q. Would you trade your job for any job in sports?
King: Yes, to be the catcher of the Boston Red Sox. You bet your ass.
Q. There could be an opening this year.
King: (laughing) You know, I see Larry Lucchino every now and then and I always tell him, “I’m ready.” When I was a kid growing up, at first I wanted to be Carlton Fisk. But then I wanted to be Bob Montgomery. He got paid a decent paycheck and he only had to hurt his knees 20 or 30 times a season. Otherwise he got to catch out in the bullpen and watch baseball every day and get paid for it. That’s my dream job.
Q. Where’s the imagination today in politics and sports and in the media?
King: I don’t think there’s any lack of imagination. Once something gets set, whether it’s a team or a league or a structure, once you have a set of rules and an organization — in sports it’s the leagues; in politics it’s the parties; in the media it’s the networks or the newspapers — like in everything in life, you get habits. But then new people come along with imagination.
Q. For example?
King: Dr. J started dunking the ball and made it acceptable, and the game changed. You have some people in politics who are challenging the orthodoxies of their parties because they know that some issues are big and that they need to think outside the box. And everybody in our business, whether it’s print or TV, is struggling at the moment to try to figure out how to deliver our product in this world of new technology. The thirst for information is greater than ever, and yet you have broadcast and cable networks and print organizations all struggling.
Q. Why is that?
King: Because the technology has been growing by leaps and bounds and we’ve been stubborn in defending our old ways of doing things because they’re comfortable to us. Some people tend to resist change and, therefore, new ideas at first. But if they’re good ideas, they will ultimately win out. You see it when sports are transformed. The power of imagination will overcome any obstacle in time.