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Larry King: now brought to you live by Kremlin television

Larry King (left) interviewing Russian President Vladimir Putin for CNN in New York in 2000.
By Gabriela Esquivada, from the US
For The Herald in the US
You can watch the good old suspenders on Russia’s RT station

New York — You have seen them both shaking hands with US presidents — one of them has a bigger collection, starting with Richard Nixon; the other just met the latest since Bill Clinton.

You have also seen them both shaking hands with each other, in a 2000 interview that still serves as a no-no example for students of journalism.

“What happened to the Kursk submarine?” Larry King asked Vladimir Putin about the causes of the accident that killed 118 crew members of the nuclear transporter.

“It sank,” the president of Russia said through an interpreter. Then, silence.

Oh, but what a silence: “I loved his answer, he just said, “it sank,” but that wonderful pause he took…” said King later. “I find him engaging, I liked him right away.”

So much did King like Putin, and perhaps vice-versa, that you can see them together again in an experiment that has made a lot of noise: bringing the octogenarian former CNN star interviewer of 25 years to RT, the English-speaking, anti-US news outlet created in 2005 as Russia TV, and funded with a generous budget from the Kremlin, rebranded RT in 2009.

Today RT reaches more than 100 countries through 30 satellites and 500 cable companies, plus its website. It has and audience of 630 million people but its main target is the 90 million US viewers that watch it in their ordinary news cable package. It is not that Al-Jazeera, China Central Television and Press TV (Iran) do not air as well. But RT is the second foreign news channel preferred in the US, following BBC, while YouTube ranks it among the top 10 in its News and Politics channel.

It is strange to watch the good old suspenders in RT, the same channel where the most hilarious Wall Street-abhorring financial journalist, a former stockbroker himself, Max Keiser, repeats the mantras “financial terrorism,” “banking crime wave” and “rigged stock markets.” Or where Peter Lavelle, an US national living in Easter Europe and Russia for over 25 years, host of the flagship show CrossTalk, condemned the US “culture of impunity” for the powerful, or more recently asked “How can we expect democratic institutions to survive when there’s global inequality?”

But there is King, back in an uncharacteristic channel for the US audience with his characteristic attire. He seems to enjoy it to the point of criticizing his former home for its low ratings: “Put SpongeBob on CNN — 24 hours — until a big story breaks. Then we break into SpongeBob, and go to the hurricane, and then back to Spongebob.” More interesting is the fact that his two shows, Larry King Now (barely different from Larry King Live, his CNN success) and the new PoliticKing, are produced by the interviewer’s own company, OraTV, which is financed by the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

RT’s motto, “Question More,” could not be more foreign to the iconic interviewer smooth and non-confrontational style. Nevertheless, he has managed to keep his easygoing attitude to question little and allow people to express themselves.

King’s unforeseen return ignited critical comments. The New York Times made its own and pointed towards others: “Given that the Kremlin-owned network devotes considerable airtime to critics of the American government, and finds fault with President Vladimir Putin’s rule about as often as Fox News produces exposés on the Republican Party, the hiring (of King) prompted a stream of mockery from Russian skeptics and the foreign press corps in Moscow.” Mark Adomanis wrote in Forbes: “Outside of nursing homes, it’s hard to see who’s going to be particularly excited by this latest development.” Max Read satirized in Gawker: “Prehistoric fertility god and former CNN host Larry King is bringing his current show, Tales from the Cryptkeeper, to Russia Today, and adding another show, to the Kremlin-funded cable news.” Foreing Policy asked “Hey, Larry King: Have You Ever Watched Russia Today?”

On December 16, 2010, the final edition of Larry King Live on CNN, predicted: “I don’t know what to say except to you, my audience, Thank You! And instead of goodbye, how about so long?” Soon he was back with Larry King Now, firstly distributed through Hulu, and through KremlinTV — as detractors dub the Russian channel. The show hardly differs from the famous one that helped him get the mark of 50,000 interviews in a career that began in Miami in 1957. But PoliticKing seems to make a difference by mixing hot issues with a weird lot of guests, from former vice-president Dick Cheney to ex wrestler and governor Jesse Ventura, almost anonymous GOP members according to Barack Obama’s advocates.

The first programme (June 13, 2013) was about security vs. privacy: Representative Aaron Schock (Republican from Illionis), Democratic political strategist Peter Fenn and Politico’s deputy managing editor Rachel Smolkin offered their foreseeable views. For Schock, they were talking about treason; for Fenn, “young people do not have many expectations about privacy anymore”; Smolkin held on to information.

In November he interviewed Cheney, who spoke in disturbing detail about heart failure and treatment and transplant — “20 units of blood, nine hours of surgery, 35 weeks of rehabilitation, a pump I used that bought me 20 months” — and of the book, Heart, that he co-authored with his cardiologist, but would not pronounce on his own the name of…

“The revelations are terrible,” said Cheney, “there are reasons why we have classified programmes; and I think that this notion that… what’s his name…”

“Snowden,” said King.

“Yes, Snowden. I think he is a traitor.”

At the historic Hay-Adams Hotel, overlooking the White House, with “a friend,” King looked amused. “Dick Cheney and I share some bonds,” he said, and described his own coronary ordeal. There were many pal-moments. Cheney explained why in 2004 the Republican Party caught 44 percent of Latino vote. “George Bush was not only pro-immigration: as a border-state governor he also had a great respect for the Mexican community, they liked him, he spoke the language, bad, as good as he spoke… English,” he said.

“80 percent,” estimated King, laughing.

“80 percent,” confirmed the guest.

And then they got back to issues like Obamacare and treason.

This January King interviewed Snowden’s legal adviser Ben Wizner, a member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He said that his client was grateful for the global debate and the local support of those that have requested clemency for him. He explained that Snowden had said “mission accomplished” not in the same spirit than 80 percent-Bush, but meaning that his job, to bring to public debate what was a secret wrongdoing, was done.

“How will history look at him?,” asked the host.

“History is generous to whistleblowers.”

Or traitors — whatever.

In December, while discussing the Affordable Care Act with two doctors with very different opinions (a wealthy MD from New York City and a pro-public health activist in Washington, DC), King condemned: “We are the only industrialized nation in the world without a health plan for its citizens.” This month, in the edition Can America fix its broken immigration system? he asked actor and director Edward James Olmos: “Obama has deported over two million undocumented aliens, more than any other administration before. Does that surprise you?” It did not, Olmos said, and denunciated that the main issue was the reason why people crossed the border: “Who is exploiting Latin America, why do they come in first place?” King nodded.

Perhaps nothing has beaten yet his dialogue with Donald Trump in the days of the government shutdown. He introduced the US business icon with the unmistakable pompadour: “Love it or hate it, he can make or break someone’s future with two words: you’re fired!” (thank God for the contraction). “One of my favourite people of all time, Donald Trump.”

Trump said the shutdown was “a mess,” but added that he certainly understood the Republicans position. “We are not doing well as a country. We will no longer be the great economic power in 2016, China will replace us.” King argued that Obamacare was a law and the Supreme Court had upheld it. Trump agreed but added: “It’s turning out to be very negative. I have friends that are hiring only part-time people now, friends closing business because of Obamacare.” Then they moved to possible candidates for 2016. The guest said that “it may be none of the names most discussed now.”

“Could it be Trump?,” King asked.

“So many people ask me that question. And so many people want me to do it! I was thinking about it”, said the real estate magnate. But he has a passion for business, and for The Apprentice. “We’ll see what happens in 2014 and then I will make a decision.”

“You are a piece of work,” thanked him King.

“So are you,” Trump replied.

@gesq

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