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.
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.