The Clinton interview was instructive, because the host’s approach varies (present tense, as CNN plans to keep him on in some capacity) depending on how much power his subject wields. If Morgan likes the subject, or is honored to have him on, he asks friendly questions and maybe gets a fresh on-air response to the controversy of the day. This was generally Morgan’s approach with Sen. John McCain, who made it on the show, on average, every few months. “We’ve got footage of you when you went to the Ukraine,” said Morgan in his latest McCain sit-down. “What kind of country is it?” This was a follow-up question about breaking news.
When Morgan grabs another sort of guest—a weaker, freakier guest—he’s a wholly different interviewer. He pounces. He interrupts. He calls the subject “gutless” or “an idiot” if they can’t take his grilling. One of the (many!) problems here, as Zack Beauchamp wrote, is that Morgan’s righteous anger rises not when he’s failing to get a good answer, but when he’s being disrespected. This happened, torturously, shortly after Michele (Mee-shell, as Morgan called her) Bachmann left the 2012 presidential primary. Morgan asked her, naturally, about some gay-skeptic comments by Kirk Cameron. Bachmann said she couldn’t “judge” the TV star.
“You've been pretty judgmental in the past,” said Morgan. “Come on!”
“Me?” said Bachmann.
“Yes, you,” said Morgan. “One of the most judgmental people in America probably.”
The two of them kept going on like this, with Morgan insisting she had been “very, very outspoken about gay marriage, about homosexuality, in the past and people will view it whether you think it is judgmental or not as very judgmental.” When the segment wrapped, Morgan sought solace from comedian Lewis Black about how this mad guest “called me rude and was indignant because I had the impertinence to suggest that she was judgmental, when some would argue she's the most judgmental woman in American politics.”
This was more than pointless—it was self-defeating. It was the same issue that undermined Morgan’s campaign for gun control, carried out over a year against a series of straw-man guests. The crusade was doomed from day one, as Morgan revealed a few months ago to the Guardian. “Watching the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom was the trigger point,” he said. “Jeff Daniels’ character is bored in his job, ticking time, hasn’t got a clear voice, then he suddenly explodes about the state of America, and it transforms his show.”
Forget, for the moment, that Morgan was inspired to retool his real-life show because he saw something that worked in a fictional TV series. In The Newsroom’s first season, the fictional team botched an episode about Arizona’s immigration reform bill because it booked uninformed, partisan guests. They resolved never to do it again. Morgan, inspired by the show, booked a blockbuster interview with … Alex Jones, the sandpaper-voiced radio host who sees the New World Order lurking behind every software update, and in Morgan’s words “a man who says I should be deported for my stand on guns.”
The interview was doomed from the outset, as were so many of Morgan’s check-this-out bookings. It didn’t need to be that way. And it’s a shame that Morgan was the U.K.’s ambassador of TV journalism. A really stellar TV interviewer like Jeremy Paxman handles a figure who wields power just the same as he handles a menace to the system. People still talk about the time Paxman asked Michael Howard, later the leader of the Conservative Party, the exact same question 12 times in a row. In 2010, after the anti-war leftist George Galloway won an upset election to Parliament, Paxman immediately asked him whether he was “proud of having got rid of one of the few black women in Parliament.” Nothing amorphous about whether Galloway was “judgmental” or not. Just a haymaker, meant to throw him off his script, and succeeding.
Not every interviewer wants to work like that, and not every interviewer should. CNN made a smart but strangely handled move (a late-Friday-night timeslot for a short summer run) last year when it hired Canada’s George Stroumboulopoulos, exposing a warmer country to his well-researched, probing interviews. The network could promote him. Or, wounded by the criticism of Morgan’s gun stories, it could hand the hour to an interviewer who fails for completely different reasons.