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Election Focus 2004

Presidential Election Media Coverage: An Interview with John King

Media's Role in Elections: Telling the People "What's Going On"
An Interview with CNN Correspondent John King

(Election Focus 2004, May 21, 2004)


In an interview, John King, senior White House correspondent for television's CNN network, tells Washington File staff writer Darlisa Crawford about his role in reporting the activities of a U.S. presidential election year. King has covered four U.S. presidential elections for a number of news organizations, including CNN and the Associated Press.

Following is a transcript of the interview:

Question: What is the most important role of the media in a presidential election?

King: The most important role is to objectively observe and report on the positions the candidates take in the election, and hopefully as well to report fairly on what the voters view as the biggest issues; often Washington is focused on things that in small town America are not as relevant and we should be careful not to take Washington's perspective as the country's perspective.

Q: How do you balance the media's role on elections and its responsibility to the public?

King: I think that they are the same thing. One of the troubling trends in our business in part because of where I work (24-hour cable) is that there are a lot of "shout shows," people screaming at each other on television. There is a lot more opinion on the air as part of what is framed as mainstream journalism. We are supposed to drive the middle of the road and not pick sides, to be objective. That's what I have to try to do every day. So, you are serving the public by telling them what's going on. You are serving the public by telling them what the president is doing, why the president might be doing that, where is he today, what does Senator Kerry say about what the president says. Bring it all together and just tell. Tell what they say. Don't try to tell people what to do. Don't try to influence people. That's not our job. Our job is to share information and do it to the best that we can.

Q: How do you identify election stories and election issues for your news stories?

King: It varies widely. Sometimes what the president focuses on is the focus of my story on any given day and sometimes it will be what Senator Kerry or whoever the challenger in any given election brings up. I like to go to communities and ask "normal people," as I call them, what they think. In most cases the issues are fairly obvious; this year the war on terrorism and in Iraq and the economy are the dominant themes. But we should also look for smaller "niche" issues that could be important in certain key areas. The debate over trade and "outsourcing," for example, is a subset of the economic debate that is very important in many of the major presidential battleground states.

Q: How has the Internet influenced coverage of this presidential election and the race in general?

King: Technology allows the media to communicate more conveniently with people. To those people that use it anyway, it is more convenient. You send an email instead of writing a card. You send money on the Internet instead of going to a fundraiser or answering a direct mail pledge, but some of it is new money. How much of it is new money? They will study that after the election and figure that out.

I think that you can overrate the Internet. Largely it is a way to communicate to the people that you already have with you. It's a campaign club. Instead of coming into your living room, you meet them on the Internet. You communicate with like-minded people more than you get new people, I think. However, for the small percentage of undecided voters, that ten percent, if they are looking to do research on candidates, it is much more accessible now. You can get it so easily that I think that helps both campaigns.

Q: What has been the most significant change in presidential election media coverage?

King: Live television and the cable news networks are the most substantial changes in the last 20 years. Candidates are now trying to drive the coverage throughout the day, for better or worse. There are more platforms for campaign surrogates and other interested parties to air their views. From an information standpoint, it is a great blessing, but it can also be "loud" and crowded, if you will. But more information is always preferable to less.

Q: How does this presidential election differ from the elections that you have covered in the past?

King: This is the first one where the United States actually has 100,000 plus troops overseas, some of them getting shot at every day. So the United States is in the middle of a real war. If my memory is right, some of this stuff was going on in Kosovo, but it wasn't like this. Kosovo was in the air. So you have kids on the ground getting shot at every day, people questioning whether it was right or wrong to go to war in the first place, and you have sort of an "iffy" economy. So you've got two big things. Most elections are about one big thing. You are lucky if the election is about one big thing because that gives you something to write about. So this is a challenging time and of course it's the election after the last one in 2000 when the country was split right down the middle. The courts decided the election. You have an incredibly polarized public.

Today 45 percent of the people are going to vote for Bush and 45 percent of the people are going to vote against him. That's just done. There is almost nothing that can happen, even though there are still seven months to the election. There is almost nothing that can happen to change those people's minds. That is how polarized the country is. It is very strange to have that dynamic in which you've got two huge things, a war and an economy. You also have a completely polarized country in which they are going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over about 10 to 12 percent of the American people. That's whom they are fighting for. The other people have made up their mind.

Now it is not quite that simple in the sense that there are 45 who are with you no matter what and there are 45 who are against you no matter what. Let's assume you split what's left, the ten percent that's left. Well then who is going to win? The guy who gets most of his 45 percent to show up will win. That's the nuts and bolts of elections. Actually convincing people don't just be for me, be late to work to vote for me. Harangue your neighbor and get him or her to vote for me. That stuff fascinates me. Especially in an age where there is so much competition with cable, noise, radio noise, Internet noise, work noise, the pace of life noise.

Q: What is the greatest advantage and disadvantage in covering a presidential election?

King: The great advantage of covering a presidential election is getting to access the candidates and a chance to see how they hold up under a very stressful and demanding schedule. You also tend to see corners of the country that you might never encounter otherwise. Whether it is the biggest cities or, as the president did recently on his bus tour, tiny rural farm towns, in those places you see how people respond to the candidates. In my view there is no disadvantage; you are always tired and sometimes lose track of the calendar or what town you are in, but that is the beauty of a long campaign.