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CNN's John King says he doesn't have to give up objectivity to woo cable viewers

November 12, 2009 |  9:27 am

CNN anchor John King may be known for the ease with which he navigated the network’s interactive “magic wall” during last year’s presidential race, but the longtime Associated Press reporter describes himself as “a dinosaur.”

“I don’t think you have to give up your objectivity and give up being a reporter to be part of a very lively, provocative, feisty conversation about the issues of the day, as long as it is built around facts and information,” he said Thursday in an interview from Montana, as he was headed to a local diner to interview customers. “I think people are hungry for it. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.”

CNN is doubling-down on that notion by giving King the daily hourlong time slot that had been occupied by host Lou Dobbs, who abruptly resigned from the network Wednesday. In replacing the populist commentator with a veteran newsman like King, network officials are furthering distancing the operation from the kind of opinionated programming that has lifted the prime-time fortunes of Fox News and MSNBC.

The move is a gamble. After enjoying ballooning viewership during the 2008 race, CNN has seen its prime-time ratings fall by a quarter this year. In October, it recorded its smallest audience of 2009, barely beating sister network HLN to avoid placing fourth in the key 25- to 54-year-old demographic.

King will have to work to build viewership for the 4 p.m. hour that Dobbs hosted, a key time period that leads into the network’s prime-time block on the East Coast. In October, “Lou Dobbs Tonight” attracted just 631,000 viewers on average, placing third behind a repeat of MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews.”

King, CNN’s chief national correspondent, acknowledged that he faced “a huge challenge,” but said he’s not going fret about the ratings.

“That’s not my job,” said the 46-year-old. “My job is to put an interesting, informative and hopefully thought-provoking and fun program on the air. And if people like it, they will come. ... If it’s not working, they’ll come tap me on the shoulder someday and say, ‘You know what, this isn’t working.’”

“You look around at so many big issues that are front and center right now -- if we can’t find a way to make them interesting for people, then they should tap me on the shoulder and I should go back to tending bar or moving pianos or something,” added King, who did both to put himself through college at the University of Rhode Island.

A veteran political reporter, King has covered six presidential elections, many for the AP, where he worked as chief political correspondent before joining CNN in 1997. His new program, which will launch in the beginning of 2010, will have the sharp political focus he brings to his current assignment, anchoring a four-hour Sunday morning block called “State of the Union.” (He plans to continue hosting that until sometime next year.)

King vowed not to let his new program succumb to inside-the-Beltway conversations, noting that he travels to a different state each week for his current show. “I’ve worked in Washington for 20 years, so I’m part of the problem,” he said. “But I also get out of Washington as much as I can, and I just think that sometimes we forget to connect what’s being done in Washington to the lives of people, to make it relevant.”

One of the ways King hopes to do that is with the use of CNN’s “magic wall,” a massive screen that he employed deftly during the 2008 campaign to quickly zero in on voting districts, demographics and voting breakdowns. This year, he has used the panel to illustrate other stories, such as the hometowns of the soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“You can use this technology to make it more accessible, to bring people closer,” he said. “Smart people realize that things are changing and we have to adapt. But we don’t have to give up our principles and give up our passion.”

-- Matea Gold

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