L et'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," he said. "A lot of the issues in Florida are the same as states such as California. And, whatever happens, I'm going to be talking to the next governor of Florida; we just don't know who that is, yet."
At 7 p.m. Monday, King will be joined by St. Petersburg Times political editor Adam Smith in moderating a debate between Rick Scott and Alex Sink from the University of South Florida in Tampa, airing nationally on his show John King USA.
On Sunday morning, Candy Crowley, host of his former show State of the Union, and Smith will moderate a debate with Florida's U.S. Senate candidates Charlie Crist, Kendrick Meek and Marco Rubio. Both debates are presented by CNN, USF and the St. Petersburg Times.
As King 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 — he took a few minutes to answer questions about the debate and his own show's struggle in a crowded news world.
By now, these candidates have already appeared in debates. How do you get them to say something new?
Well, No. 1, 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.
We've seen in some debates that candidates make statements about their opponent that later turn out to be untrue or taken 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 website, and over the next couple of days we're going to put this to the test." 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 prime time. Can you avoid that?
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 to 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.