CNN’s John King talks about election, social media fame, and discovering journalism at URI

KINGSTON, R.I. – Dec. 7, 2020 – About a month after election day turned into election week, John King ’85, Hon. ’10 is finally getting some much-deserved time off.

CNN’s chief national correspondent has spent the year following the pandemic and covering one of the most divisive elections in U.S. history. So, he’s stockpiled vacation. It’s time he’s spending with his 9-year-old son, Jonah, and working on overdue house projects – “spackling, caulking, painting, plumbing, raking.”

“This was (and is) an extraordinary election cycle, but I am pretty good at mostly disconnecting when the break comes,” says King in an email interview. “So, while there’s no normal in 2020, I am better than I was years ago in getting away for a bit.”

During election week, CNN averaged 6.1 million viewers a night during primetime – tuning in to hear lead political anchor Wolf Blitzer and King tirelessly report and analyze results from CNN’s state-of-the-art election map, the Magic Wall. King, a graduate of URI’s journalism program, gutted the week out on about 3 hours’ sleep a night as he distilled outcomes from around the country – seemingly county by county.

King’s marathon performance – and that of MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki – captured the imagination of anxious viewers riveted to their TVs. They were the talk of social media and late-night talk shows. On Twitter, they were crowned “chartthrobs.” Jimmy Fallon penned an on-air thank-you to them as the “mcsteamy and mcdreamy of touch screens.” Memes celebrated them on TikTok.

King and the Magic Wall were virtual guests on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” On “Saturday Night Live,” Alex Moffat played King – with bloody stumps for fingers.

“They got the sore and worn digits just about right,” says King.

King, who’s worked nine presidential elections and won Emmy and Peabody awards for his election coverage, is used to some celebrity as a CNN anchor. But this time, he says, the attention was more intense.

“Some of this just could be the evolution of social media,” he says. “There was big interest when we first unveiled our ‘Magic Wall’ in 2008. This time, in my view, there was more, and it ranged from more young people in the U.S. to some fascinating interest and conversation globally. It was proof to me of the high-intensity environment anyway, plus with Trump there is an added element because he is so polarizing.

“It is gratifying to see people trust CNN, and me, at such an important moment. We work hard to earn that trust.”

Despite all the kudos on social media, there were some who took exception to King tweeting that he found election night “fun.” But, he says, he stills gets excited for election night, and is honored by the responsibility he has as part of CNN’s coverage.

“I know it is not ‘fun’ for a partisan on either side to endure hours – in this case days – of up and down uncertainty,” he says. “[But] I love my job and enjoy the challenge; to me that is fun.”

Asked how he would rank the 2020 election – with nearly 160 million people casting ballots and President Donald Trump still contesting results a month after the election – King said 2020 will be remembered for “Trump’s defiance in the face of facts and math.”

But he adds, “I thought after 1992 and the [Ross] Perot factor there would never be another one to match the drama and unpredictability of that. Then along came 2000 and hanging chads and the Supreme Court. This one deserves positive notice for the higher participation. It will also receive considerable study – and scorn – for the president’s constant effort to undermine truth and democratic institutions.”

King, who will appear in a virtual conversation hosted by The New England First Amendment Coalition on Dec. 14, says that Trump’s presidency has presented that challenge daily.

“We are reminded every day of the Trump Age that the First Amendment belongs to everyone and that the gift of free speech comes with challenges,” he says. “Journalists should have a constant view: Respect any and all voices and their right to be heard, but deploy facts and fairness to calmly challenge those who distort, twist or try to create alternative facts.”

King, a Boston native, graduated from URI in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. After graduation, he went right to work with the Associated Press.

But he wasn’t a born journalist, he says. When he came to URI, he had no idea where his future led. Knowing he liked to write, a Shakespeare professor suggested journalism. Old clips from his Good Five Cent Cigar days, some of which he’s kept, show “a lot of long, meandering sentences in need of focus and punctuation,” he says.

“I was blessed with an internship at the Associated Press in Providence because of a journalism professor who said, ‘You won’t know if this is for you until you try it in the real world.’ The real world in those days included Buddy Cianci and Claus von Bulow and the Patriarca crime family. It was an eye-opening introduction.”

After more than a decade with AP, King joined CNN in 1997, becoming chief national correspondent in 2005. The stint has included serving as CNN’s senior White House correspondent, and reporting on the Iraq War and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At AP, he covered such major events as the Persian Gulf War, and the 1988, ’92 and ’96 presidential elections.

Asked where the 2020 election fits among his top assignments, he says, “I was trained long ago not to pick favorites or rank things. So, I am horrible at such questions. It is also hard to compare elections with events like a war or a hurricane or tsunami. But a pandemic election in the age of Trump is a remarkable event.”

Heading into a new year and a new presidency, King, who also is anchor of CNN’s “Inside Politics,” is gearing up for the changes.

“The Biden transition and then governing challenge is an enormous story, all the more so because of the COVID challenge,” he says. “Plus, Trump isn’t going anywhere and both political parties are dealing with giant internal tensions and challenges. A ton of policy arrows are about to change direction. Governing may not be as exciting as elections, but we are in for some consequential and important months ahead.”