Tom Shales: Larry King's exit marks the end of a gentlemanly era in TV talk

Larry King, CNN's iconic talk show host, hung up his suspenders Thursday after 25 years in the interviewer's chair.
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

No More Mr. Nice Guys. Such is the prognosis for the post-King world -- Larry King, of course, who has had a rocky year in the ratings and who recently announced his retirement from the flagship talk show he hosts on CNN. His departure is as imminent as the announcement, from those ever-befuddled CNN executives, of his replacement.

That replacement -- expected to be snitty British twit Piers Morgan, the poor man's David Frost -- may be better or worse as an interviewer compared with King, but he won't be as nice. CNN doesn't want "nice" anymore. It wants lean and mean, assault and battery, rough-and-tough stuff like on the other cable talk channels.

"Larry King's replacement should have 'attitude,' " wrote a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter. "Attitude" translates, often, as viciousness.

We'll miss Larry not only for the unique and peculiar specimen that he is -- the Damon Runyon outfits, the refusal to wear a coat even when interviewing a president of the United States, and that growly groan of a voice -- but also, yes, for what he represents. Larry King's show got to be an increasingly lonely outpost of humane civility in a mephitic menagerie of hotheads, saber rattlers, cretins and crackpots.

Onward and upward with discourse and chitchat in America.

The inescapable trend toward abrasive extremism has been oft-bemoaned. Cries of alarm don't do much good, but alarm has to be cried anyway, and King's announcement, which was anything but unexpected, is reason to make the cries grow louder. Besides, there is good cause to blame people other than King for the decline and fall.

King wasn't doing anything different from what he'd done for 25 successful years on CNN, so why were his ratings plummeting? Perhaps because the booking of guests on his show had become quixotic, and because CNN executives weren't willing to throw themselves gratefully behind Larry and stick up for him when the going got rough.

Many viewers had to be scratching their heads when, on May 18 -- night of major, important, significant primary election results from around the country -- Larry King's guest was that eminent and estimable political figure and analyst -- Mick Jagger? Mick Jagger, who just happened to be popping up to plug the rerelease of "Exile on Main Street" on every show in town, with the possible exception of SpongeBob's?

The night of the primaries was a mighty strange night to take a holiday from politics on "Larry King Live," a show whose reputation rests largely on the prominent political figures who've come by to chat and to pay their respects to King over the years. Insiders say the silly Jagger appearance was symptomatic of confusion at the top of CNN and a refocus of the news network away from, well, news. What we'll probably see more of in the weeks and months of remodeling ahead is more of that carping, contentious talk that thrives on competitors Fox News and MSNBC, where personalities like Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann (arguably two sides of the same coin) hold forth.

King was indeed chided over the years for lobbing "softball" questions. Controversial guests would appear on King's show above and before all others because, it was said, they could expect an easier time of it. But why should every show and every host have to deliver hardballs over the plate at 100 mph? Must everyone who asks questions on television do it with a 25-pound chip on the shoulder? King let guests have their say. He was gentlemanly. And he got great guests, at least in his long and happy heyday, largely for that reason.

You knew you could go on King's show and try to explain and defend yourself, if need be.

Now CNN is going a different route indeed -- with hosts who have plenty of explaining and defending to do, or one of them anyway: Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor who resigned in disgrace over dances with hookers. Is this some kind of a joke, teaming Spitzer as co-host of a new 8 p.m. talk show with Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Kathleen Parker, who earned a kind of fame by calling President Obama "the first woman president" in one of her columns?

A kind of fame, naturally, is good enough now. Fame and infamy -- it is hardly shocking to point out -- have become all but indistinguishable in the culture. How did it happen? What has brought on the wave of harshness and calumny that saturates public conversation in the 21st century -- so far? The Internet, with its mob rule and forums open to every conceivable variety of nut, has arguably been a principal cause, elevating trash speech to the level of published commentary just because there's room for it -- here, there, everywhere.

Maybe Larry Kings cannot thrive or even survive in a world where the norms for discourse are rage, vehemence and character assassination. King wanted to be liked, not feared; admired, not loathed. The veteran broadcaster has no apologies to make, either. For 25 years, he made a radio format work on television, and certainly without being another pretty face. The ugliness might lie ahead, especially if CNN tries to out-shout the boors and demagogues representative of Fox News Channel and MSNBC.

Not that every person who helms a talk show on these networks is guilty of coarsening the conversation. But the big noises, the most prominent personalities, seem also to be the most shrill and hostile. They set the standard, substandard though it may be.

And what happens on television invariably affects -- and sometimes infects -- American life, manners and mores. In March, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was shocked to be jeered and vilified by anti-health-care-reform demonstrators on Capitol Hill who used the most vile of racial epithets when screaming at him.

"It surprised me," Lewis said afterward, "that people are so mean, and we can't engage in a civil dialogue and debate."

If he'd watched more cable TV, Lewis might not have been quite so surprised.

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