After Donald Trump’s Joker-esque stunt yesterday promising to donate $5 million to charity if President Obama released his college transcript and passprt, Trump went on Piers Morgan’s CNN show to explain himself. Given that Trump gave Morgan his first claim to American fame when Morgan won the first edition of Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice show, it wasn’t a particularly challenging interview.
But Morgan’s deficiencies as a journalist aren’t limited to his friendship with the Donald: Piers’ 9 PM hour has been a ratings mess and a trainwreck, a perfect storm of substanceless, venal chatter glued together by Morgan’s uncanny ability to make everything about him. But to understand the five biggest problems in Morgan’s approach to journalism, you have to see him in the act:
1. Piers Morgan Interviews An Empty Chair
Morgan booked Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin shortly after the infamous “legitimate rape” comments, only for Akin to cancel at the last minute. Morgan’s response was to lecture an empty chair — before Clint Eastwood made it cool:
While it’s admittedly amusing, the rant is a perfect example of how Morgan makes everything about Piers. The host notably does not lecture the chair about either its limited understanding of the human reproductive systems or the misogynist underpinnings of the idea of sorting rapes by their supposed “legitimacy.” Instead, the issue is Akin inconveniencing Morgan; the congressman cancelled at “the last possible minute,” making him a “gutless little twerp.” Even in his follow-up interview with Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Morgan shies away from the substantive issues raised, asking Schakowsky “[Akin] bailed on us. What do you think is going on here?”
2. Piers Morgan Interviews An Empty Chair…Again
While technically this interview with another GOP Senate candidate, Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell, didn’t involve an physically empty chair, it might as well have. After asking O’Donnell a series of questions about the witch comments and her, er, idiosyncratic views about masturbation, he asks her about marriage equality and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. When she declines to address either issue, Morgan harangues her, prompting O’Donnell to get up and leave while he continues to ask her questions:
This interview illustrates Morgan’s incredibly frustrating habit of being on the right side of an argument, but prosecuting it in nearly the most counterproductive fashion imaginable. If Morgan wanted to have a substantive exchange with an anti-equality advocate, O’Donnell might not have been the smartest guest to book, and it’s hard to see what value comes from haranguing her on the issue. Indeed, Morgan’s has a noxious habit of treating LGBT issues as a cudgel with which to beat his guests rather than a critical rights campaign. His interview with Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) is not a genuine attempt to point out the deficiencies in her worldview, but rather a referendum on whether or not she’s “judgmental.” Of course she’s judgmental! But she’ll never say that, and making the debate about Bachmann’s personality and rhetoric rather than policy isn’t telling us anything we don’t know or making a single viewer more supportive of LGBT rights than they were before.
3. Piers Morgan Loses A Debate To A 9/11 Truther
Speaking of Morgan’s argumentative acumen…
In this segment, Morgan invites former Governor Jesse Ventura (I-MN) onto his show with the express intent of debating his crackpot theories about 9/11. Usually, the purpose of such an exercise on a major cable channel would be an epic debunking, as otherwise the host is simply broadcasting insane ideas to a wider audience. Unfortunately, Morgan isn’t prepared to do that — he simply asserts over an over again that Ventura’s claims are madness, ridiculous, or irrational, which is, needless to say, totally unpersuasive. This problem isn’t limited to Morgan’s interviews with conspiracy theorists – he repeatedly approaches argument as a contest of who can say “no, you’re wrong!” more, an approach to discourse that ends up being somewhat less than enlightening.
4. Piers Morgan Degrades An Already Frivolous Story Into A Parody of Frivolity
It’s not a problem that Morgan often interviews celebrities on somewhat fluffy issues — such interviews can be very and interesting and he did, after all, inherit his timeslot from Larry King. But it’s one thing to cover less important stories, and another thing entirely to degrade the quality of journalism even on frivolous issues:
Here Morgan interviews Casey Anthony’s lawyer about a conversation that Morgan had with Anthony, supervised by the lawyer, in which he generally allows Anthony’s lawyer to expound on his client’s behalf without the faintest challenge (see the full interview if you don’t believe me). The problem here isn’t that he’s covering Casey Anthony; I’m not Aaron Sorkin. Rather, it’s the inane topics of conversation like Anthony’s purported weight gain and reading list that drags down an already gossipy story.
5. Piers Morgan And The Phone Hacking Scandal
Finally, we arrive at the most important issue on the list – Morgan’s utter shamelessness in using his program to cover his ass on an issue that seriously threatens his own credibility. Morgan worked as an editor at several Rupert Murdoch papers in the UK during the time period in which, according to an investigation last year, Murdoch employees routinely hacked private voicemails to get scoops. CNN failed to publicly probe its new hire’s connections to the issue when it broke (he was a former News of the World editor, the paper most heavily implicated in the investigation) despite suggestive evidence from his own book that Morgan was involved in phone hacking. Morgan, for his part, did a series of segments sympathetic to Rupert Murdoch’s line, including this fawning (unembeddable) interview with another former Murdoch employee.
As evidence continues to mount that Morgan was involved in phone hacking, including allegations in the past few days that another paper helmed by Morgan was involved, the importance of Morgan giving an honest public accounting of his past grows exponentially. His seeming inability to come clean creates a credibility problem that dwarfs the other concerns with his show.