Broadcast icon Larry King has a dilemma, and he may not even know it.
Former RT America anchor Liz Wahl quit the Kremlin-backed television outlet in a blaze of glory Wednesday night, claiming her ex-employers are little more than propagandists who regularly censor criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially in the midst of the crisis in Ukraine.
But, in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast on Thursday, the day after Wahl’s on-air resignation, King said he has no problem appearing on the pro-Russian government network.
“I don’t work for RT,” said the 81-year-old King, whose podcasts, Larry King Now and Politicking, are licensed for a fee to RT America by New York-based Ora TV, in which King has an equity stake. “It’s a deal made between the companies…They just license our shows.”
King, who has been the target of stinging criticism of late because of his association with RT America, said he wouldn’t accept censorship, however.
“If they took something out, I would never do it,” he insisted. “It would be bad if they tried to edit out things. I wouldn’t put up with it…As long as they don’t, as long as they’re carrying stuff critical of them, I’ve got no problem with it.” Attempting to distance himself, he added: “You may not like what Russia’s doing now, but I’m really a party removed.”
King went on: “It always runs in full. They’ve never edited a show.” Then he quickly revised: “To my knowledge, they’ve never edited a show.”
That argument is unlikely to satisfy critics of the former CNN prime-time star. “If Larry King had any scruples,” public relations expert Kevin McCauley wrote on Thursday, “he would follow Liz Wahl out the door on RT America…Does King really want to cap a 56-year career by flogging at an outlet that purposely feeds misinformation and distortions to its viewers to gin up support for an illegal occupation of Crimea and a potential occupation of eastern Ukraine?”
Of course, Vladimir Putin was an occasional interview guest on CNN’s Larry King Live, and mercilessly flattered the departing talk show host in one of King’s final CNN shows in February 2010.
“Can I ask a question? I’m not sure why, but the king is leaving us,” Putin told his host on the air. “There are many gifted and interesting people working in the American media, but there is only one King. I’m not asking why he’s leaving us, but I want to know when we will be able to say, ‘Long Live the King!’? When will there be another figure as popular around the world as you are?”
King pointed out that the latest installment of Politicking—which aired Thursday night on RT America—featured interviews with Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Marc Ginsberg, former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, both of whom slammed Putin and Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. In his 10-minute interview from Washington with King in Los Angeles, McKeon called Putin a “schoolyard bully.” Ginsberg, meanwhile, talked of Putin's “subversion” and called the Putin-backed ousted president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, Putin's “puppet.” He was also critical of President Obama for perceived weakness in the foreign policy realm.
“I think it’s very good if critics of Putin get on,” King said. “That’s good.” King is promoted on RT America as one of the network's "signature" personalities and he agreeably participates in several of the network's in-house ads. Viewers can be forgiven for thinking he not only works there, he practically lives there. Of course, his relatively conventional half hour is an island of traditional interviewing in a sea of anti-American programming that tends to portray the United States as a cruel, capitalist dystopia run by paranoid, small-minded Republicans who do the bidding of billionaires while screwing the average working Joe. (Russian oligarchs, anyone?)
King, meanwhile, sounded unfamiliar with the substance of Wahl’s troubles with RT America. “Did they block her? Did they tell her she couldn’t say something?” he asked.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, as well as her on-air resignation on RT America and subsequent appearances on U.S. media outlets, Wahl cited repeated examples of censorship and Russian propaganda at the network. As a descendant of refugees of the Soviet Union’s 1956 occupation of Hungary, Wahl said she finally realized that taking a paycheck from her Russian-government employers was indefensible.
“It actually makes me feel sick that I worked there,” she told The Daily Beast. “It’s not a sound news organization, not when your agenda is making America look bad.”
King, whose programs also run on Ora TV and Hulu, has yet to arrive at such a conclusion.