Say what you will about Larry King — that he's a shameless softballer, that he's a selective listener, that he may not always understand who he's talking to and what they're saying — you have to admit the man has stamina. Even as his body seems to shrivel and his concentration appears to wane, he's been showing up for "Larry King Live," his five-nights-a-week, hourlong CNN interview program, for 25 years. Throughout it all — and, indeed, throughout his whole career, which began in radio in 1957 — his off-the-cuff, agenda-free (unprepared?) style has proved both amusing and bemusing to heads of state and reality show stars alike.
Thursday night, King, now 77, is saying farewell. The 9-to-10 p.m. time slot will be filled by Piers Morgan, the 45-year-old British journalist who does double duty as a judge on "America's Got Talent" and apparently represents CNN's best hope against Fox's Sean Hannity and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, both of whom have mightily trumped King in the ratings.
Much has been made of how difficult it has become for middle-of-the-road, more or less unbiased news and talk programs to compete against the noisy, partisan shoutfests that audiences can't seem to get enough of. King's observation in the New York Times that "the hosts of all these other shows are interviewing themselves" is popping up all over the blogosphere, as are comments from King's colleagues and former interviewees who are happy to turn on the spigot of "they don't make 'em like they use to"-style praise.
Onetime presidential candidate Ross Perot, who gained political traction thanks in no small part to appearances on "Larry King Live," remarked that King would "let you finish what you're saying." Former President George H.W. Bush called him a "thoroughgoing professional." Fox News' Greta Van Susteren lauded him for making his guests feel comfortable.
It's only appropriate to pay homage to folks when they retire (not that King's officially retiring; he's slated to host four CNN specials a year), but let's be honest: Although Larry King and his show had some endearing and admirable qualities (not least his dedication to long interviews), "thoroughgoing" he was not. His gaffes were legendary (top among them: confusing Roman Polanski with Charles Manson), he did plenty of interrupting, and even if seasoned media personalities appeared comfortable on their side of the table, regular folks were often left floundering amid pregnant pauses and awkward crosstalk.
If that sounds harsh, it's not because I'm a (sort of) young person who craves divisive, rapid-fire talking heads on TV (I'm actually repelled by them). But I think the backlash against all that yelling, baiting and deliberate misconstruing of words is leading to a false nostalgia and perhaps too rosy a look at King's hours (and hours) of interviews.
Amid the quick cuts and the ceaseless news crawls, it's easy to tell ourselves that news was more complete and interviews were more authentic before the Hannitys and Maddows of the world came along. Amid all the ideological posturing and smug theatrics, who among us doesn't yearn occasionally for an awkward silence, an agreeable host and, perhaps above all, a total lack of agenda?
But there's a difference between not having an agenda and not having a clue. As refreshing as it has been that King generally checked his politics at the door, it also happens that he sometimes left his brain there too. Sure, the hype machine will say his more memorable broadcasts — the O.J. Simpson car chase, for example — qualify as historic media moments. And sure, King's guests Thursday will be duly fawning, in the way these grand signoffs usually go.
Still, let's not hold King up as a shining example of the good old days of television news simply because he didn't throw tantrums or yell at his guests. That suggests audiences are only interested in personalities who inhabit the far extremes of the behavioral spectrum; that we want either catfights or coddling, softballs or hardballs that break your nose. In other words, it insults our intelligence even more than these television programs already do.
Instead of glorifying the man, let's simply thank him and wish him well. We owe him no less — and no more.