CNN’s John King discusses his ‘journalism journey,’ inspiration of Jim Taricani, and 2020 election

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 26, 2021 – In a time of “fake news” claims, when some with political power deny truth or science, the gold standard of journalism is the “show them” standard.

It was a standard underscored nearly two decades ago by WJAR-TV investigative reporter Jim Taricani, said John King ‘85, CNN’s chief national correspondent, Wednesday evening as he delivered the inaugural Taricani Lecture on First Amendment Rights. The University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media hosted the talk.

Taricani H ’18, who died in 2019, was a nationally respected journalist who championed federal shield laws for reporters. In 2004, he was sentenced to six months of home confinement when he refused to divulge a confidential source who had provided him with a video tape detailing a Providence city official taking a bribe. The tape was part of the FBI investigation Operation Plunder Dome into Mayor Vincent A. Cianci.

Taricani’s choice to show the tape on the nightly news – instead of providing source accounts of what was on the tape – was a watershed moment that still has an impact today, King said.

“Fake news, you hear that a lot now. It was not a common refrain back then, but [attacks] … on the media and credibility of sources are as old as the printing press,” he said. “Jim understood the power … of moving from ‘sources say’ to ‘take a look, trust your eyes.’ And he was willing to risk his freedom to deliver the news in a way that could not be denied.”

“Today the top story in America is that Derek Chauvin is behind bars. Why? Because the jury believed its eyes, because a young woman in Minneapolis knew to hold her cell phone steady, knew she needed to show people what was happening to George Floyd,” he added. “Darnella Frazier was a bystander, not a journalist, but her video made it impossible to deny the knee on the neck, made it impossible to rewrite the context of that moment. The ‘show them’ standard brought accountability to a police officer in Minneapolis, just as it did 17 years ago to a city official in Providence.”

Talking with Laurie White-Taricani, Taricani’s wife, who moderated Wednesday’s virtual lecture, King discussed his “journalism journey,” which has taken him from Kingston, to Washington, D.C., and beyond. It’s included covering nine presidential elections with the Associated Press and CNN, reporting from all 50 states and nearly 80 countries, serving as White House correspondent, and covering wars, disasters, a pandemic, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Early on, his career intersected with and was inspired by Jim Taricani.

King grew up in a blue-collar home in Dorchester, Mass., his father a jail guard, his mother a “miracle worker” who kept order in a house of seven unruly children. After graduating from URI in 1985, he went straight to the Associated Press bureau in Providence, where, he said, if you were covering Rhode Island politics “it was like getting paid every day to go to Disney World.”

On his beat, he developed a nodding friendship with Taricani as the two worked for competing news outlets. “Jim was a reporter’s reporter,” King said, and the two would occasionally talk during late nights at the mobile diner Haven Brothers on a side street outside Providence City Hall.

His fondest memories include working a story and finding Taricani’s “foosteps” on the same story. When he did, he knew he was onto something. “[I knew] I better work faster and I better work harder,” he said. “Jim won most of those competitions in those days. But if you did get a bead on a story where you knew you had come across Taricani footsteps, the beer tasted better those nights.”

In spite of Taricani’s reputation as a hard-nosed journalist, King said, he was willing to help a 21-year-old reporter straight out of college. Taricani always said hello and took time to offer compliments, and praise King to others. “You have no idea how much that means and how much that could impact the early days of your career,” he said.

“To the students with us today,” he added, “the best advice I can give you is to find an example like Jim Taricani – watch, listen, learn, listen some more.”

Following his prepared remarks, King, a vital member of CNN election nights including the “2020 Election Night in America” coverage, talked about the effects of technology on journalism, the First Amendment, and the divisive presidential election, taking questions from White-Taricani, members of the audience, and student journalists Theresa Brown ‘21, Zach Austin ’24, Leila Cox ‘22, and Andy Main ’21.

Asked about how the divisive presidential election differed from others, King said that journalists are trained to be objective and neutral, and allow candidates leeway to spar and stretch the truth during presidential elections. But former President Donald Trump changed the formula, especially with this dispute of the election results.

“Trump forced us to come back at this,” he said. “So how do you do that? Number one, with me [it’s] the ‘Magic Wall,’ it’s math, it’s the truth. People live in these states. … So, you can just show them and they see it.”

King brought up the Magic Wall, CNN’s state-of-art results board, again when asked about the evolution of technology for journalists.

“The Magic Wall does things that we never use on television,” he said. “Sometimes I use (data points) to game out demographics and trends or to look at data analytics. Some of them translate well into television. Some of them are just helpful for me in research. … I do subscribe to the school that most often less is more — use the two or three data points that make your point, do not try to overwhelm.”

Asked about the proliferation of media outlets that mask opinion as news, King stressed that he trusts viewers and readers to sort out the truth. But added, “The First Amendment belongs to us all. There are people who will use their First Amendment rights to do things that we find abhorrent. We have to remember for me to have the First Amendment rights … so does everybody else.”

The annual Taricani Lecture, endowed by Laurie White-Taricani and the Taricani family, started last summer with a three-part preview series and will be held each spring. The lecture was sponsored by Harrington School of Communication and Media and the College of Arts and Sciences.

The King lecture has received 3,100 views. If you missed the lecture, you may view it at the Taricani Lecture website.

Gifts to the Taricani Lecture position the University of Rhode Island as a destination for robust discussion regarding journalism and the First Amendment by providing the resources needed to bring distinguished local, national and international journalists to lend their expertise and perspective to this critically important topic. Please, help support the Taricani Lecture.