Sunday night, after David Carr broke the news that Piers Morgan would be ending his CNN show, I searched Twitter to find how his fans were taking it. This was a mistake. Really, who was a Piers Morgan fan? Have you ever met one? No, reaction to CNN’s scheduling news ran the gamut from suppressed glee to running-naked-through-the-streets glee, from gun lovers declaring victory over the “Brit” to nonpartisan journalists reminiscing about Morgan’s finest ethical lapses.
The negative reviews didn’t bring Morgan down. He popped them like vitamins. On Twitter he actively trolled his perceived enemies, a hobby that jumped like fleas to his producers. The January 2011 debut of Piers Morgan Live was preceded and promoted by a “Twitter war” between the host and Madonna. “There was a bread roll throwing incident in London in the mid ‘90s,” Morgan explained to an interviewer. “There was an incident at a hotel in the south of France.” This set the tone for Morgan’s show, a marriage of checkout-line hype with complete pointlessness.
But the critics couldn’t kill that show. Viewers killed it. The live broadcast of Morgan’s show drew around half the viewers that MSNBC did, and a fifth as many as Fox News. Morgan welcomed Fox’s Megyn Kelly to 9 p.m. by telling her (on Twitter) to “bring it on.” She did.
In fact, Morgan’s humiliation was so total that he’s at risk of becoming a martyr for True Journalism. Carr’s scoop was fairly sympathetic to the host, asking how much of his unpopularity had to do with his British accent and values. Americans, said Morgan, remained skeptical “about this British guy telling them how to lead their lives and what they should do with their guns.” Carr confessed a “reflex to dismiss” Morgan because “he just got here.” Were we wrong about the guy?
We were not. Morgan was the beneficiary of a curious American habit. We assign 20 extra IQ points to anyone who speaks with a British accent, redistributing them from the people who speak with Southern accents. This was what led people, like Alec Baldwin, to assume that Martin Bashir “might help get MSNBC to a higher place,” and why every B-movie producer has assumed he could elevate the material by casting Malcolm McDowell or Ben Kingsley. That way lies madness—that way lies Thunderbirds and Piers Morgan Live.
It wasn’t that Morgan was stupid. In his time (and he’s only 48, just two years older than Anderson Cooper), he was a bold and ambitious tabloid journalist. Four years before phone-hacking brought down the News of the World, Morgan called the technique “an investigative practice that everyone [knew] was going on.” He was extraordinarily good at running a newspaper and nailing a certain kind of celebrity story. Sometimes that meant carrying on feuds. Fine. Worth it, for the story.
That’s a very different skill than getting the best possible interview—particularly, the best interview for a show and time slot that can reel in powerful people. Carr’s piece mentions that Morgan has booked powerhouses like Bill Clinton and “dug in” when they got to his set. Has he? Morgan’s most recent interview with Clinton, last year, made news for the president’s (genuinely funny) impression of Bono. But before that, Morgan gave Clinton acres of running room to answer questions he must have been ready for. “How do you get stuff done in this dysfunctional Washington?” asked Morgan, days before the government shutdown. “What will it take to change America's culture of gun bans given that we [have] seen some of the worst outrageous [shootings] in American history in the last year?”
Morgan was asking Clinton to endorse Morgan’s own politics. Surprise, surprise—the president pulled it off. When time came to prod Clinton about his family’s political future, Morgan tried silliness (“Who do you think might make the better president, your wife or your daughter?”) and flattery (“I met your wife for the first time and your daughter today and she looks fantastic”) to get nothing Clinton hasn’t said in other interviews. Guess what: Clinton was not yet ready to declare his wife’s candidacy for president.