Media

The Interview: John King on CNN, Elections, and Donald Trump’s Tweets

He grew up delivering the Herald in Dorchester. Now he’s one of the nation’s most respected newsmen—not to mention Donald Trump’s nemesis.

Courtesy of CNN

“Underachieving John King.” That’s the Twitter nickname President Donald Trump bestowed on the Dorchester son who’s become the czar of the CNN touchscreen election map. When the moniker came up, King—who has covered eight presidential elections and now hosts his own show, Inside Politics—says he took it in stride. “I’m relatively middle or low on [Trump’s] list of people in the media that he wakes up looking to kick every day,” King says with a laugh during our hourlong conversation, which ranged from the endless speculation over which Massachusetts politician will inevitably end up on the 2020 presidential ticket to growing up near the Wahlbergs. And, of course, learning to live with Trump.

How do you report on a president who lies?

Calmly. Don’t scream. Don’t seem like it’s under your skin. When the president says 3 to 5 million people voted in the election illegally, we can show that that’s not true. We can interview Republican secretaries of state who will say that’s not true, that did not happen. Did maybe a couple hundred people vote fraudulently? Is it possible that some undocumented immigrants cast ballots? Of course it is. Did 3 to 5 million people do that? No. Was his crowd at inauguration day the largest in history? No. We don’t need to get worked up about it. In most of the cases where [Trump and his people] flat-out lie, it’s not terribly hard to just show the facts.

Do you have any regrets about the way CNN covered Trump during the campaign?

Largely, the answer to that is no. I understand when people say we gave him too much airtime or we took him live too often. Did Trump get disproportionate attention and time during the campaign? Yes, he did. Are there some days that, given hindsight—which you don’t get—we might go back and do it a little bit differently? Of course there are. Just like there are with anything in life.

Do you think those editorial decisions had any effect on the election?

Occasionally, I’ll hear somebody say, “You guys gave Trump the election.” Well, let’s go back to the primaries when all of this was happening. He was the guy who was never supposed to run. He was the guy who three or four times previously said he was going to run and then blanked and didn’t run. Then he got in and he was new. We’re in the new business. You take new, you slap an “s” on it, you have news—that’s what we do for a living. He was challenging and changing the Republican Party. He was the story. He was the guy getting Christian conservative votes despite all the things he had said about God, taking those votes away from Ted Cruz. He was the guy beating the Bush juggernaut, even though the Bushes were a legacy name and had raised all that money. He was the guy who marched across the South beating governors and senators and everybody else. He was the story.

Given Trump’s social media habits, how do you decide when something he tweets is newsworthy?

There are a couple of things. Number one, it’s different for candidate Trump than President Trump. He’s the president of the United States now. Anything he does is an official statement of the president. His staff tells us sometimes to pay no attention to what the president just tweeted. I find that absurd. That somebody paid by the taxpayers would say to a journalist or an American citizen, “Pay no attention to what the president says,” or “Pay no attention to what the president tweets”—I’m sorry, that’s a crock. He’s the president of the United States. These are official statements.

Do you think his tweets are a valuable way of learning about him?

We now know from a couple years of history that his Twitter feed is the most honest gateway to what he’s really thinking about and how he prioritizes. When he tweets 10 times about the NFL and one time about Puerto Rico, that tells you something about the president of the United States and how he has decided to spend his time and energy. That’s important.

So it’s a matter of news judgment.

We work in the news business. I was trained at the Associated Press to be an objective reporter, to treat people fairly. But in the context of objective reporting, we make hundreds, if not thousands, of subjective decisions every day. Let’s hope that we all adhere as close as we can to our journalistic principles of objectivity and fairness, but then we make a ton of subjective decisions about how to prioritize things. What’s on the cover this month? Does John King’s article get 200 words or 800 words? Is the Patriots story above the Red Sox story? Where do you put things? What’s the lead of the newscast?

Growing up in Dorchester, were you a Herald reader or a Globe reader?

My dad got both newspapers. My first job was delivering the Boston Herald, and I would say I personally read the Herald more than I read the Globe, just because I would pick it up in the morning—literally sitting on my front porch folding them—shove them into the big bag you put over your shoulder, and get on the bike. And I’ll be perfectly honest: As a kid—I’m still this way—I was a sports-page-first kind of guy.

Did you know the Wahlberg family from growing up in the same neighborhood?

I did not know them; I knew of them. I’m one of seven children, five boys and two girls, and my younger brothers knew the Wahlbergs and occasionally interacted with them. Now I come up to Boston just about every year for a charity event in Codman Square and I see Paul Wahlberg, who does the restaurants. Every year, we remind each other of some story about Dorchester back in the day.

Was it strange when some of them became so famous?

My parents both died young and they’re buried at Cedar Grove Cemetery, and so whenever I’m in Boston, I try to make a trip just to go say hello. One of the things I remember about going back to Dorchester is that I knew where the Wahlbergs lived. And when they got money, they redid their mother’s house dramatically and took care of that house. There were some great old Victorians in that area in Dorchester and in my time of growing up there—late ’60s, early ’70s—a lot of them weren’t in the best condition because most of them were the homes of blue-collar families that didn’t have a lot of money. So you did what you could. I remember their house being renovated and thinking, Wow, they did right by her.

Early in your career you spent a fair amount of time reporting from war zones. Were there any particularly difficult experiences?

I didn’t know much about the military, and I spent time in the desert with American troops. I spent time in the desert with Egyptian and Saudi troops and even Syrian troops back in the day. I was in the battle of Khafji [in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War], where I mistakenly thought I was safe and went into the center of this town with Qatari troops and Saudi troops, and the Iraqis ambushed us. That was pretty dicey. I crawled out of there on my hands and knees. I probably crawled a good quarter of a mile. Frightening.

Now that you spend most of your time in DC at the CNN studio, do you worry that you might be getting soft?

Not soft, but you worry about the disconnect. One of the gifts of technology is that you can stay in touch with people. I’m 54 years old, which is not old. But I do remember in the first presidential campaign I covered in 1988—I was covering Michael Dukakis—we had pagers and they gave us the very first cell phone, the Motorola shoe phone. But you couldn’t text, you couldn’t email, there was no such thing as FaceTime. You could not communicate instantaneously. So the gift of technology allows you to stay in touch with people in a way you simply couldn’t, especially 20, 25 years ago. So there are ways to get around some of the price you pay for not traveling.

What’s the buzz in DC around some of the local Massachusetts politicians, like Seth Moulton?

You mean President Moulton?

You think so?

Well, I’m saying that flippantly. But one of the interesting things people always ask me in Washington, because I’m from Massachusetts, is “What’s in the water in Massachusetts? Why does everybody in Massachusetts think they have to run for president?” Look at Dukakis, John Kerry, Mitt Romney, and now the speculation about Congressman Moulton and Senator Warren. I think that number one, Senator Warren is an active leader in what is right now the most vibrant part of the Democratic Party. My first campaign was with Dukakis. Walter Mondale lost 49 states, Dukakis lost 40, and everybody said the Democrats were too liberal, you can’t be competitive. Are we in a place, 30 years after Dukakis, where the country has moved to where the Bernie Sanders–Elizabeth Warren wing is ascendant?

So yes or no, will there be a Massachusetts native on the 2020 presidential ticket?

Look, I’ll say yes for the sake of the joke. I just have to play local, right? I think it’s possible. We know Elizabeth Warren wants a national profile. I don’t know if we know she wants to be president. Does she understand—this is not a criticism of her—that running for president is a beast? It wipes you out. It requires you to give up your life for two or three years. It requires you to raise a lot of money. It requires you to sacrifice almost any and all personal dignity if you’re a candidate in today’s politics. Does she want to do that? I don’t know the answer to that.

Speaking of presidents, Donald Trump has assailed you on Twitter, and you work for a network that he seems to truly detest. How does it feel to be the president’s nemesis?

He’s come after me a couple of times. I’m relatively middle or low on his list of people in the media that he wakes up looking to kick every day. I think that we should have a thick skin and a sense of humor about these things. He once, I guess, called me “underachieving John King” on his Twitter feed. But he loves the electoral map on my show. He always tells people he loves the maps, so I’m grateful for that.

You’ve moderated presidential debates in the past. Would you change your approach if you moderated one with Trump up there on the stage?

No, I would ask the questions that I thought were relevant. And I would be prepared for him to attack me as fake news or whatever. You just have to go in. You spend hours preparing for these things. You figure, How many candidates do we have, how much time do we have, how many questions are we likely to get to? What’s the biggest story of the day or what’s the biggest issue for this candidate and this campaign? And you make your list and you go out and ask them. You have to be aware. You have to be aware that Newt Gingrich is much more likely to attack you than Mitt Romney is. Donald Trump is most likely to do X versus whoever he’s debating on the stage. You have to study and be aware of the differences of the people that you’re with, but that’s just doing your homework. Whether this is calling out the BS when Trump does the fake news thing, or covering his Twitter feed, or any other thing he does. Again, my golden rule when things get complicated is to go back to the basics. Cover it. Cover it fairly. Ask the right questions.

Have you ever arm-wrestled Wolf Blitzer?

I love Wolf like a brother. I have never arm-wrestled Wolf Blitzer, though. That’s a fact, I have not. But Wolf is a unique figure to me because Wolf was the senior White House correspondent when I switched from print to television. We never like to admit these things, especially the males of the species, but I was petrified. I had worked for 12 years at the Associated Press. It was my family, it was my home, it was the only job in journalism I knew, even though I moved from Providence to Boston and then to Washington. My bosses were my mentors and my friends. They had allowed me to cover campaigns when I was a kid. They sent me off to war when I was young. So here I was going into this new environment. I was petrified; I was horrible at it. In a business that has a lot of egos and a lot of strange people, Wolf is just—he’s a Buffalo kid and I’m a Dorchester kid. He’s just the most decent human being you will ever meet in your entire life. And he’s such a gentleman. He’s just a quiet leader, carries himself with dignity. He would just say, “It’ll be okay. We’re glad you’re here.”

But if you did arm-wrestle, who would win?

Oh, I would win. Of course I would. Boston beats Buffalo every time.


Lisa Weidenfeld Senior Digital Editor at Boston Magazine lweidenfeld@bostonmagazine.com