John King, host of the nightly CNN news show, “John King, USA,” was one of the TV personalities present at UNF the week of the on-campus Republican debate. After the conclusion of his Jan. 25 newscast, King met with fans and students behind the CNN broadcast tent located near The Green. King posed for photos and answered questions for more than an hour, never refusing anyone.
King gave The Spinnaker the opportunity to ask him questions regarding the GOP presidential race and the state of journalism.
Joseph Basco: When did you arrive in Jacksonville?
John King: We flew in this morning [Jan. 25].
JB: Have you had a tour of the city yet?
King: I’ve been here many times in past campaigns. I was actually telling a story earlier today. My first campaign was 1988. I was here with [1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael] Dukakis after the Democratic convention when he was going around to key states. That was my first time here, working for politics. This is my seventh presidential campaign, so I’ve been back every time since. The last campaign, I did a documentary on John McCain, who, of course, did his training at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. So, I spent a lot of time here working on the documentary, as well as just regular campaign stuff, so I love it here.
JB: With Florida, there are many questions as to who will win, but it seems to be either Romney or Gingrich. In your opinion, who do you think will likely be the favorite here in Florida?
King: Well, it’s really hard to say. The thing that makes this Republican race so interesting is the constant volatility. There were times when Michele Bachmann was up. There was this rumor Donald Trump was gonna get in, Herman Cain had a run, Rick Perry got in and jumped up in the polls, and then we thought Romney won Iowa, and then Santorum won Iowa. So you have three winners so far: Santorum, Romney and Gingrich. So anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen, I wouldn’t listen to him for very long.
If you look at the demographics of the state, you would think slight advantage Romney. South Carolina is a very conservative state. Gingrich is a Southerner, so he had an edge there. Plus, he had very strong debate performances. So he had big momentum in South Carolina.
If you look at the polling now, essentially you have a dead heat. You have conservative voters here. You have Tea Party voters here. You have evangelical voters here. And Gingrich has an advantage among those constituencies. But you also have a more moderate — and I’ll call them moderate — conservatives.
I’m not saying they’re liberal Republicans, but they’re not as conservative. You know, in the state, the panhandle and further north, you have conservative voters. As you go down Tampa and the I-4 corridor and beyond, you have a more moderate, larger electorate. [Regarding] TV spending, [with] nine or 10 TV markets in the state of Florida, there are the demographics — and the financial challenge suggests slight advantage [to] Romney. But that’s the question. It’s Gingrich’s momentum versus Romney’s money and organization. I think it’s gonna be very close.
JB: Speaking of money, a lot of money goes just to advertisements. In general, what’s your opinion of political advertisements on TV?
King: In my business, I don’t get to have opinions. I get to cover races. There’s no question, with the Citizens United case at the Supreme Court, there’s more money in politics now. These Super PACs are having a big influence in this campaign. As long as they’re doing it within what the Supreme Court says is legal, there’s nothing you can do about it. So everybody has to play by these rules.
Is it having a huge impact? Yes. Romney had a big Super PAC with his friends, so Gingrich’s friends had to go out and find support for him. It causes a whole separate game. Essentially there are two campaigns: there’s the candidates’ campaigning, and there’s the Super PACs campaigning, and sometimes they collide with each other. It’s a lot of money. And voters tell you they don’t like it, but then if you ask them, “Why did you change your vote?” their reasons often track with the advertising. So voters say they don’t like the negative ads, but it’s also no question they are influenced by them. The history of politics says ads work. That’s why you see so many of them.
JB: Let’s talk about yourself and journalism. How do you feel, with the Internet and TV co-existing, what is the best medium to convey news?
King: It’s a very different business. I started as a print reporter right out of college. I worked at my student newspaper back in the 1980s — you weren’t alive. And the businesses changed dramatically. I was a print guy for 12 years; I’ve been in television for 14 years. The business is evolving with the technology; however, there are times when the business is struggling.
Newspapers are struggling. Some news magazines are struggling, even the broadcast medium. You can’t have appointment television. You can’t tell somebody you have to watch John King at 6 every night, especially somebody younger because they know they can either TiVO it, they can go online and watch the pieces they want, they can go to Hulu. There are so many places. There’s so many ways to get the news when you want it, how you want it, in the form you want it, that the whole appointment television model is in trouble right now.
But, the thirst for information is greater than ever. So the business just has to learn to adapt. That’s why you see The New York Times newspapers are in trouble. The New York Times now has one of the world’s best websites. I think CNN’s is the best, but if you look at it, they have video up, they have pictures up. It used to be the old gray lady. It was a boring newspaper. Look at the Wall Street Journal and how it has changed in the last few years. So the businesses were stubborn, everybody is stubborn. These changes are happening in a business.
Everybody said: “No, we are going to keep doing this the way we have always done it.” Well, then you realize, if you keep doing the way you have always done it, you will be out of business pretty soon. So everyone is adapting and changing. And look, are there some things that are on the Internet that I don’t consider journalism? Are there some people who say they are news sites that don’t follow the rules that I was trained by? Of course there are, but they have the same First Amendment right to free speech as I do. So you can’t fight it.
The genie is out of the bottle with the technology, so you just have to do your job the best that you can and trust in the common sense of the consumer that they will eventually pick a good product. And they will figure it out after time — who is objective and who’s not. If they want to watch opinion journalism, advocacy journalism that’s fine. That’s good, that’s a part of the process, and it’s part of the pie. And you just have to do your job the way you define your mission, and have faith that if you do a good job you will be rewarded by people who want to watch or read or listen.
JB: Why did you get into journalism?
King: Curiosity. I’m just a curious person, and I was at school, and I just wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I had a Shakespeare professor who said: “You know, you really like to write. You should go try some journalism.” So I said OK. I took a few courses, and I had a smart enough professor who said: “I can only teach you so much in class. If you really want to do this, try an internship.” I got an internship with the Associated Press. I got to cover trials, fires, cops and robbers, the state legislature and the governor. And I said: “Wow, they pay people to do this?” And that was 27 years ago, and I’m still having fun.
I’m just curious. I call this the curiosity business — learn every day. If I don’t learn every day, it’s a bad day.