The broadcasting icon’s fake interview with a Russian journalist went viral on social media, spread by accounts tied to China’s government.
Jacobi Niv had paid Larry King a few thousand dollars apiece to narrate half a dozen videos for companies or projects in Israel, where King is still a big name. But what Niv wanted King to tape on March 27, 2019, wasn’t the usual infomercial. It was more like a disinfomercial.
An Israeli with designer clothes, a buzz cut and a long history of failed businesses and inflated credentials, Niv had known King for nearly a decade. King sometimes taped Niv’s promotional videos at the same Glendale, California, studio where the longtime television host filmed “Larry King Now” and “PoliticKING” for Ora Media, the digital TV network he started with his wife, Shawn. The crew resented the way Niv would stride into their homey, basic studio, bringing extra work for them. But he had ingratiated himself with King, in part by sending him lavish floral arrangements and other expensive gifts on Jewish holidays, King and others said.
That morning, Niv emailed a script to King’s executive producer, Jason Rovou, who recognized that it wasn’t Niv’s typical fare. It was about China, not Israel, and the content appeared to be news-related.
After a 300-word preamble on the U.S. trade deficit with China, King was to introduce a guest, Russian journalist Anastasia Dolgova. The first of King’s scripted questions for her was open-ended: “How can we strengthen the relationship between the 2 countries?”
It soon got more pointed. “Dolgova, you wanted to present us with a case that you mentioned on your show as well,” the script read. “There were several Chinese people who worked in China and allegedly committed crimes there who then fled to the United States and Europe, continuing on with their normal lives while leaving many angry people behind.”
Dolgova’s answers were not in the script. They were plugged in separately. King was expected to tape his questions without speaking to her. His skill at the give-and-take of interviewing, of sensing the moment and asking the right question that draws a revealing response, would not be of any use.
Rovou sensed trouble. The idea of lending the set — and his boss’s reputation — to a potentially controversial video that Ora couldn’t control disturbed him, according to three people familiar with the incident. Rovou worried that King could be helping a foreign government spread false information, reminiscent of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — a topic King routinely discussed with guests on “PoliticKING.”
When Niv showed up at the studio, intent on making the video, the usually laid-back Rovou confronted him. “It annoyed the holy hell out of Jason, like I’ve never seen him,” said Ian Smith, then a director at Ora. “Jason, to his face, told him how annoyed he was with him. Everyone knew he didn’t like what Larry was being asked to do.”
Niv took Rovou’s outburst in stride. “Jason didn’t want to do this video, not this video, any video,” Niv recalled. “He would say, ‘Why do you come here without telling me in advance?’ So I told him, ‘Look Jason, I set it up with Larry.’”
Rovou implored King not to do the video. King waved away his concerns. The then-85-year-old host, who was in poor health, also made it clear that shooting elsewhere — he occasionally taped Niv’s videos at a Beverly Hills hotel — would be a burden.
Defeated, the crew gathered around the chestnut-colored wood-paneled set of “Larry King Now,” an Emmy-nominated interview show that has featured more than 1,000 guests from Oprah Winfrey to Harrison Ford. Staff loaded the teleprompter and started filming. In the same white shirt, blue floral tie and black suspenders that he wore for an episode of “PoliticKING” taped that day, King ran through the monologue and the string of questions, the last being, “I’m amazed, are you sure that the story you are telling here is real and authentic?” He concluded, “We will continue to bring you interesting stories.”
Early that afternoon, Rovou emailed a link of the raw footage to Niv.
“Ora can’t do favor tapings,” Rovou wrote. “I just can’t have this dropped on me again.”
This story was first published in ProPublica