Piers Morgan doomed his interview with Janet Mock the second he opened his mouth. Here was Morgan’s first question for Mock, a trans woman and activist who’s making the media rounds promoting her new memoir Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, when she appeared on his show Tuesday night: “This is the amazing thing about you,” said Morgan. “Had I not known your life story, I would have absolutely no clue that you ever would have been born a boy. A male. Which makes me absolutely believe you should always have been a woman. And that must have been what you felt, when you were young. Take me back to when you first thought, ‘This isn’t right. I’m not Charles’—which is the name you were first given when you were born in Hawaii. ‘I’m a woman. I’m a girl.’”
Notably, this is not a question. This is Piers Morgan assessing Mock’s legitimacy as a woman, based exclusively on her physical appearance, then assuming that Mock’s own experience of her gender identity conforms to his own, and finally, putting words into her mouth. The opening statement set the stage for a ten-minute interview fueled by Morgan’s own superficial understanding of what it’s like to be trans, as opposed to a legitimate attempt to understand Mock’s experience, which is his job. The interview was obsessed with appearances—Morgan compares Mock to Janet Jackson and Beyoncé, asks what it felt like to “look in the mirror” for the first time after undergoing sex reassignment surgery at age 18, and uses the arbitrary date of that surgery to mark when Mock became a woman (before the surgery, she was “a boy” or “used to be a man”). The title card under Mock’s face throughout the segment was “BORN A BOY,” which is a reflection of how Morgan, or his producers, apparently sees her, not how she’s always seen herself. When the show promoted the segment online, it did so in the most sensational and ignorant way: “How would you feel if you found out the woman you are dating was formerly a man?”
Why do mainstream journalists so often screw up interviews with trans people? Morgan’s interview with Mock came on the heels of Grantland’s January publication of “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” in which reporter Caleb Hannan began investigating the scientific claims of a golf putter inventor and ended up outing her as trans (but not before she killed herself). A couple weeks earlier, Katie Couric broadcast a bumbling interview with trans model Carmen Carrera and Orange Is the New Black’s trans star Laverne Cox, in which her line of questioning veered creepily toward her guests’ genitals. The problem with these types of stories is not that the journalists get the terminology wrong (though they sometimes do) or that they veer into overtly anti-trans rhetoric (though transphobia often seems to lurk just below the smiling support). It’s that they approach the interview as an attempt to confirm their own (often ignorant) perspectives, instead of using it as an opportunity to understand another person’s experience. This is not a failure of sensitivity or political correctness. It’s ultimately a failure of reporting.
After Morgan’s interview with Mock aired, she and other trans activists took to Twitter to criticize Morgan’s repeated claims that Mock was previously a “boy” and a “man.” When Morgan brought Mock back to the show to discuss that criticism, he, too, focused on the superficial aspects of his phrasing to defend himself: “I called you a woman throughout the interview,” he said. “I never contested the fact that you’re a woman.” They spent the rest of the segment arguing over whether Morgan’s assertion that Mock was “born a boy” was offensive or not. Both parties ended up squabbling over the details instead of illuminating the bigger picture. I understand why activists like Mock and her supporters would focus their critique on terms like “boy” and “man”—they’re easy to screenshot and fit into 140 characters—but in doing so, they’ve allowed interviewers like Morgan to focus on their adherence to superficial rules of engagement instead of addressing a deeper ignorance of the issue. It feels like trying to polish the language of a story that hasn’t even been reported yet. And none of it helps the regular viewer better understand what’s really wrong with the way trans people are being framed in the media, or, beyond that, what trans people who aren’t being interviewed on CNN face everyday.
Most troubling is that Morgan made little effort to understand Mock’s perspective in the initial interview, or leading up to it. If he actually read Mock’s book, he certainly didn’t show it. Then, when Mock and some of her supporters were miffed about that, Morgan again failed to do the necessary work to better understand his subject. Instead, he brought Mock back on to express his umbrage and turn the fallout from a bad interview into an attention-grabbing feud. Near the end of the interview, Mock suggested that she and Morgan sit down over coffee to have a more intensive conversation about the issues at play. I guess it’s unreasonable to expect Morgan to engage in that kind of preparation before every interview (though, why not?), but it probably should have happened before interview two, when it was clear to everyone (Mock, Morgan, anyone following this on Twitter or who had watched the previous night’s show) that there was a massive lack of understanding between interviewer and interviewee here. Instead, we got a superficial fight about the word “boy.”
This misplaced focus on language as opposed to substance is also what torpedoed the Grantland story. After Hannan’s piece sparked outrage last month, Grantland editor Bill Simmons posted an apology, claiming that the site made one “massive mistake” in publishing the piece: “Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft.” That makes it seem like all the story needed was someone to help the site mind their “hes” and “shes” before it hit publish; what the site really required was a reporter who was capable of doing as much work to understand the trans community as he’s done to understood the world of golf. Even as he apologized for it, Simmons called the story a “well-written” feature that was “reported for a solid seven months.” It wasn’t reported long enough.
Interviewers like Morgan and Couric are in a tricky spot: They’re tasked with introducing trans issues to a largely ignorant audience while avoiding tokenizing their guests. Being trans is still such a marginalized identity that many viewers of network news shows (or readers of sports websites) have little to no understanding of what the word even means. We’re still at a point where trans people are so invisible in the American media that the simple fact of their existence constitutes news. (As Couric crudely put it when she introduced Carrera last month: “She was born a man, and that's why she's on our show.”) But that doesn’t mean that the interviewers can get away with being as ignorant as they presume their audience to be. They need to know enough about their subjects to ask questions that penetrate below the surface. They need to know enough about themselves to realize that they don't know anything. They can start by watching Melissa Harris-Perry's own deft interview with Mock this week. It begins: "Finishing the book this morning ..."