Words of Wisdom from CNN’s John King

“It’s John. Mr. King was my dad… or maybe Larry King, so whenever people call me that it makes me feel way older than I am.” Laughter filled the Adams House common room in response to that one.

John King is CNN’s chief national correspondent and an award-winning journalist whose career spans more than three decades. In his work for CNN and The Associated Press, King has reported from all 50 states and from more than 70 international locations. He is also currently a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics. (Source: http://www.iop.harvard.edu/john-king)

John had a casual atmosphere, a charming wit, and a sense of humor peppered with the swear words that he used without inhibition throughout the hour and half that he spent with students.

“If it’s bullshit, then call it bullshit. Just be able to prove your case.” That was John’s caveat to his advice to aspiring journalists that they should always be unbiased, because ultimately personal credibility is the most valuable thing in this business, as he put it.

The small gathering over Otto’s pizza was truly a conversation, which was made to come alive by the smattering of stories, witticisms, and advice that John threw in for good measure.

I’ve broken my summary of the dinner discussion into three rough categories in the hopes that it will allow you to glean the information that will be most helpful to you.

Appreciation

  • “There was a time when I was living on food stamps and I had never left New England. Now I’ve been to over 80 countries in the world,” said John. That was a moment when you felt inspired individually even though you knew that every single person in the room felt the same way. Sometimes we experience things personally, but being able to see, learn, and be a part of the larger world around us was what John expressed appreciation for the most, and it was clearly evident in this one detail from his life.
  • As 1 of 7 children, John is thankful for his family, a value that many of us can certainly share
  • “I feel like the luckiest man in the world–I get paid to learn, travel, and hear people’s stories.”

The Job

  • “It’s not my job to advocate. I try to be an objective journalist.” (but if something is bullshit, call it bullshit–ex. the Birther movement)
  • They use to say that we should cover both sides of the story–but there can be 8, 10, 12 sides of any story
  • He shared how he learned (and saw) the sheer power of water for his own eyes. While covering the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia, he said he was absolutely astounded by the devastation around him. People would show him a map and point to where a town had once been, and then it was just gone. He was in Banda Aceh, Indonesia at the time.
  • John started out as a print writer and worked for the Associated Press. He used to think that the TV news reporters were mostly just figureheads, reading the words that people like him had written while in front of a camera. But when he transitioned to TV news, he realized just how hard it is. “Yes, there are people that fake it, but there are good reporters out there, a lot of them.”
  • On TV reporting–for most people watching TV, it’s actually a radio. It’s on, but they’re only listening; they’re also making breakfast or talking to their friend or trying to clean the house. But I need people to watch, the pictures help me tell the story. Unlike with a newspaper that people can hold in their hands and flip pages back and forth until they’ve understood the story, the TV news reporter only has one chance to “get” the viewer. You can’t go back in time.
  • While standing on a TV set, there are times when you have people from the control room speaking in your ear, John told us. And when you’re on camera, sometimes they say things that are clearly meant only for people in the control room…long story short, it’s a chaotic business, so be ready!

Advice

  • If you’ve got that degree or great reputation, it may get you to the head of a line somewhere. But then, what you want to do is get out there, take a risk, and go learn something
  • If you want to be a journalist, go to a small market–cover the hurricanes, the fires, the junk and make a name for yourself
  • I’ve traveled with Presidents before, but it’s tiring because everyone’s eyes are always on him. “Now, if you really want a break, travel with the Vice President. Then you really get to have fun .” John had a twinkle in his eye but I know he was completely serious when he said it.
  • Think Fast: the first time I was in the White House, I was promised a two month training. I was on TV my second day. Learn how to learn quickly.
  • Wear white shirts until you learn not to sweat in front of the camera. After that you can switch to blue.
  • You will fail. I’ve had my show cancelled before…but you’ve got to learn from those experiences and move on.
  • RESPECT
  • I write stories everyday and I go back the next day because I want to do it better. Never be too confident to be willing to learn something.
  • In this business, your personal credibility is the most important thing you have
  • “I always say, you know a politician has the gift when you can feel his presence when your back is turned–that’s Nelson Mandela.” John preceded this with an incredible story about meeting Mandela before he formally accepted his election as President.
  • Be a duck. Let the water hit you and then let it roll off. Don’t let criticism get in the way of your having successes and making more mistakes that you can learn from.

Parting Words

“I’ve met people at the highest point of their life and at the lowest point, and they share their stories with me.”

It’s great to be first, but it’s better to be second than wrong.”

When you have success at something, people are going to put pressure on you to do it again. But if you need those 2-3 sources for your next story, then go and get them.” Don’t sell yourself short; don’t be overconfident.

And for all those aspiring journalists out there, John King has a movie suggestion: Broadcast News. “It’s before your time, but it’s a must-see.”

——–

If I had to sum it up, I would say John’s message was something like one of those motivational quotes you find on a fridge magnet, save the unbearable cliché.

“Get it,” he said.

You don’t need the family pedigree or the billion dollar fortune–I’m living proof of that, he said–but you do need the hands-on experience. So go get it.

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