Goodbye, Larry

King's reign ends in a world that changed even as CNN's "Larry King Live" didn't

By Jere Hester
|  Wednesday, Dec 15, 2010  |  Updated 10:09 PM EDT
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Larry King will get the last word Thursday.

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There's a lot about Larry King to mock: the gargles-with-Drano voice ("Is the caller there?"). The suspenders. The incredibly growing eyeglasses. The many, many marriages (eight weddings, seven wives). The lightweight, often clueless questions (asking Jerry Seinfeld if NBC canceled "Seinfeld").

But as King hosts the last edition of "Larry King Live" Thursday, capping a quarter-century on CNN, we prefer to remember his reign as a bastion of affable civility – if not hard-hitting journalism – in a cable news world increasingly dominated by division and near-demagoguery.

Don't get us wrong: King sadly overstayed his time, losing speed on his softball. But there's something to be said for a cable talk show pioneer, who, at his best, modestly advanced the cause of national discourse.

It's hard to fathom now, but in 1985 "Larry King Live" was ahead of its time. CNN was the only cable news network, and King was interactive before the Internet, letting callers ask the questions he didn't.

King didn't alter his game much over the years, though his going-on-curiosity questioning style proved far more effective when he was more attuned to the news world around him.

While King stayed largely the same, the nature of celebrity changed vastly over the last 25 years – how many hosts have interviewed both Frank Sinatra and Paris Hilton? More significantly, Fox and MSNBC capitalized on the growing political polarization over the last decade, employing partisan hosts who squeezed King out of the ratings game.

There's clearly a place – and certainly a need – for agenda-free, mass-audience interview shows where hosts seek answers rather than strive to reinforce viewers’ worldview.

King's time is past, though he recognizes the need the value of intelligent conversation in the media. Talking to New York magazine about possibly hosting a new show called "Bright People," King said: “Both sides would be heard. With dignity. Respect. Truth. Do you think that would work?”

It's not clear where his replacement, talent show judge and former newspaper editor Piers Morgan, will take the CNN show. We’re not sure what to make of Morgan's reported recent attempt to goad Madonna by calling her "boring" and banning her from the show.

As for King, who turned 77 last month, he'll host the occasional CNN special. He also told New York mag he plans to do some stand-up comedy.

That isn't as odd as it sounds – King can be intentionally funny, too. Anyone old enough to remember his overnight radio talk show on the Mutual Broadcasting System will recall his hilarious, if possibly exaggerated, stories from his Brooklyn youth about a not-dead-yet classmate named Gil Moppo and a bizarre trip to a Connecticut Carvel.

Anyone with memories of his radio days and best CNN years also will recall a smart, engaged host who shed some light with effective interviews of authors, public officials and celebrities who earned their stardom.

We lost that Larry King a while back. Which makes the inevitable end of “Larry King Live” all the more bittersweet – losing even one gravelly voice of civility is no joke.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.


 

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