CNN's John King talks ratings, partisanship and quizzing Florida's next governor tonight in Tampa
Let’s say you’re an anchor on a cable newschannel struggling in the ratings, facing constant sniping in the press about how you’re not attracting viewers.
Is the solution to build a whole broadcast around a debate between candidates for Florida governor?
CNN anchor John King thinks so.
“It’s a big and important state,” said King, ,” said King, whose 7 p.m. show John King USA often places fourth in its time slot behind Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN Headline News. “A lot of the issues in Florida are the same as states such as California. And I’m going to be talking to the next governor of Florida; we just don’t know who that is…That should be newsworthy.”
At 7 tonight, King will moderate a debate between Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott and Democrat opponent Alex Sink from the University of South Florida, airing on his show. Candy Crowley, host of his former program State of the Union, quizzed Florida’s U.S. Senate candidates Republican Marco Rubio, Independent Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek on Sunday; both debates are cosponsored by the St. Petersburg Times.
As he was plowing through a stack of research and preparing to learn some new technology for CNN’s elections coverage – he is, after all, the guy who made the touch-screen display a required resource in TV election coverage -- King took a few minutes to answer questions about the debate, the changing news landscape and his own show’s struggle in a crowded news world.
Times: By now, these candidates have already appears in several debates. How do you get them to say something new?
King: “Well, Number One, you do your homework…At the same time, you have to assume that not every voter in Florida has seen the debates. The biggest lesson I try to teach myself is don’t over think it. Go in with a general idea of what is interesting, what are the key issues that the next governor of Florida will have to deal with.”
You travel a lot and have moderated a gubernatorial debate in Massachusetts, what lessons can you bring to this debate?
“Listening works best. Everyday Americans are in some ways just as mad at us (in the media). They think we have some secret language they don’t understand. People here get trapped in the language of Washington. They think we want to play gotcha and not (focus on) what’s going to get them a job. For me, this is not about John King; if people learn from the debate, feel better informed and more engaged about the campaigns, I’ve done my job.”
When it comes to Tea Party-backed candidates, national media attention mostly seems focused on the most eccentric people. But in Scott and Rubio, we have two more conventional candidates who might win their elections. What does that say?
“It’s proof that the Tea Party is different in different places, which makes it a more complicated story to cover. Your state’s a great example of a Tea Party that’s different than a Tea Party in Delaware or Colorado, but what unites them is this dissatisfaction with that way things are. It is frustrating to me because this election is going to have consequential impact on huge issues, and it’s our job to jump up and down and shake people and tell them this matters to you – you should care about it.”
We’ve seen in some debates that candidates make statements about their opponent that later turn out to be untrue or out of context; how can you challenge that?
“One of the challenges in live television is to be honest and transparent about that; you look into the camera and say ‘We don’t have the time or the resources to fact check everything’s that being said – but go to this web site, and over the next couple of days we’re going to put this to the test (The Times' fact-checking website PolitiFact is checking select claims made by candidates during Sunday's U.S. Senate debate and tonight's gubernatorial contest). You can’t solve it all in an hour. You can make a commitment to people, that it’s not over when the debate is over.”
As a former wire service reporter, you’ve always been careful about expressing opinions. But critics say your ratings struggle is proof viewers want strong opinions in cable news primetime. How do you win that battle?
“There’s no question we have a challenge now when it comes to ratings. I’ve made some mistakes and CNN faces some broader challenges that we’re caught up in. Do we need abandon everything and go into the world of partisanship? I don’t think so. I think we have some soul searching to do about how we do things. When you’re having a rough stretch, you can do one of two things; you can sulk, or you can figure it out.”