Last year, CNN host Piers Morgan published his book “Shooting Straight: Guns, Gays, God, and George Clooney.” The book’s narrative, such as it is, proceeds in diary fashion, as Morgan recounts his nearly three years anchoring “Piers Morgan Live,” his 9:00 p.m. program weekdays on CNN. As the New York Times’s David Carr reported yesterday, Morgan, a former British tabloid editor, will soon be relieved of his hosting duties.
“Shooting Straight” provides all the context necessary to understand why. In diary entry after diary entry, Morgan discusses the ups and downs of life as a cable star — partying with colleagues, working like crazy, hustling for interviews and cornering guests on his show. He devotes ample space to his signature issue of gun control, on which he repeatedly hammered various gun-rights proponents on his air. Oftentimes boorishly. In combat with various guests, Morgan also advocated for gay rights, and in one memorable chat on the topic pounded Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) to the point of surrender.
So Morgan had his pet causes. What he didn’t have — and “Shooting Straight” makes the point clear — was a sweeping worldview that could animate “Piers Morgan Live.” His MSNBC competitor in the 9 p.m. slot, Rachel Maddow, has just such a worldview, one that delivers predictable and edgy harangues against right-wing America in just about each episode. And the former 9 p.m. tenant at Fox News, Sean Hannity, has a worldview and absolutely nothing else. (Hannity moved to 10 p.m. last fall). On nights when there wasn’t big news happening, those ideological folks will always have a core, faithful set of viewers that any CNN competitor will have to win over one by one.
Outside of his positions on guns and gays, Morgan brought other traits to his viewers and onlookers, like pettiness. The Erik Wemple Blog’s favorite instance of Morganitude came when the host told a gun-rights advocate interested in reviewing “Shooting Straight” to buy his own copy:
— Karta Kosasih (@ngkos) September 18, 2013
— John R Lott Jr. (@JohnRLottJr) September 18, 2013
As for general unpleasantness, there’s an anecdote from “Shooting Straight” when Morgan encounters Cameron Diaz at a party. After Diaz tells Morgan she’ll come on his show once she has “something serious and intelligent to talk about,” Morgan replies “The ‘Something About Mary’ sequel? At which point I felt a sharply pointed shoe connect with my ankle.” And there’s the time he called Gun Owners of America Executive Director Larry Pratt “an unbelievably stupid man” on air. Essential Morgan biographical moments.
There are a couple of problems with being a jerk. Given the absence of a coherent worldview on Morgan’s show, the allure defaults to the host and his personality. If that personality isn’t compelling, people probably won’t tune in. And bookings get harder to pull off, too. How many displays of rudeness could Morgan propagate till celebrities and politicians start saying no, thanks?
And make no mistake: The format of “Piers Morgan Live” depended on “get” after “get” after “get.” He launched with Oprah Winfrey and would go on to do sit-downs with all sorts of folks, including InfoWars guy Alex Jones, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Dalai Lama and all manner of politicians and celebrities. Last week’s guests included Jordan Belfort, the real-life “Wolf of Wall Street”, Sen. John McCain, the directors of the “Lego Movie”, Winfrey and “CBS This Morning’s” Gayle King (to promote their battle against loneliness), former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and others.
Take Giuliani as an example. Morgan engaged him in a discussion on foreign affairs, what with the unrest in Ukraine. Giuliani issued something of an international risk assessment: “We have to know what we’re replacing the bad guy was. In Mubarak we went from bad to worst and Gadhafi possibly. Kiev we really don’t have that problem. In Kiev, there is a very substantial two-thirds to record of the population. If they would like to be a liberal democracy tied to Europe. I don’t think that issue exist in Kiev. Venezuela it may exist. Venezuela we’ve been cut off for a long time. There is a very large middle class in Venezuela. There are a lot of business interests in Venezuela. My guess is if we could get rid of this government we would end up with a better government at Venezuela but that might have more of the risk that we see in Egypt and some of the other places.” That show, according to Variety, attracted a mere 270,000 viewers, the ninth smallest in the history of “Piers Morgan Live.”
Whatever insight viewers may have gleaned from Giuliani’s appearance, they may well have sampled the same thing elsewhere. Because Giuliani’s all over the media these days, especially over at the competition, Fox News. His punditry is commodity.
Whose isn’t? In today’s America, there are so many outlets producing interviews, so many outlets for your message — that an hour-long interview program is almost programmed for obsolescence. Look at President Obama, whom most would consider the ultimate “get.” He’s done 750-plus interviews since taking office. How many more times can he restate his commitment to the American people?
In January 2011, Morgan took over his time slot from the legendary Larry King, who also conducted an interview program. Though “Larry King Live” thrived for many of its 25 years, it struggled almost catastrophically in ratings over the year before it turned over the reins to Morgan. Now everybody is citing Morgan’s very own ratings collapse. All of which frames these past five-or-so years at CNN’s 9 p.m. time slot as a study in continuity, as if Morgan has carried forth the ending act of his predecessor.