Commentary Magazine


Too British for the New York Times

Yesterday the New York Times’s David Carr scooped the story that Piers Morgan will be dropped from CNN’s 9 p.m. time slot. Morgan seemed–at least as far as his discussion with Carr went–to be taking the news in stride. “It’s been a painful period and lately we have taken a bath in the ratings,” he told Carr, adding that he’ll stay at CNN and has been in discussions with the network over a better use of his time.

No one seems to be surprised, least of all Morgan. But his departure is something that he, CNN, and Carr appear to be getting all wrong. So while CNN may think it’s learning important lessons from its Piers Morgan experiment, it may be learning the wrong ones. Both Carr and Morgan made much of the latter’s accent. He’s not from here, you know. But if anyone thinks Morgan’s ratings suffered because he’s British, they certainly haven’t been paying attention. Here’s Carr:

It’s been an unhappy collision between a British television personality who refuses to assimilate — the only football he cares about is round and his lectures on guns were rife with contempt — and a CNN audience that is intrinsically provincial. After all, the people who tune into a cable news network are, by their nature, deeply interested in America.

CNN’s president, Jeffrey Zucker, has other problems, but none bigger than Mr. Morgan and his plum 9 p.m. time slot. Mr. Morgan said last week that he and Mr. Zucker had been talking about the show’s failure to connect and had decided to pull the plug, probably in March.

Crossing an ocean for a replacement for Larry King, who had ratings problems of his own near the end, was probably not a great idea to begin with. For a cable news station like CNN, major stories are like oxygen. When something important or scary happens in America, many of us have an immediate reflex to turn on CNN. When I find Mr. Morgan telling me what it all means, I have a similar reflex to dismiss what he is saying. It is difficult for him to speak credibly on significant American events because, after all, he just got here.

It would be astronomically bad advice for CNN to absorb this nativist lesson. In reality, the problem with Piers Morgan was twofold: first, he opined on complicated issues without the slightest–and I mean the slightest–understanding of them, and second, he mostly called his guests names when they endeavored to explain those subjects to him.

There is probably no better or more concise example of the former than the following tweet, sent out by Morgan after one of the stars of Duck Dynasty said something he didn’t like:

Just as the 2nd Amendment shouldn’t protect assault rifle devotees, so the 1st Amendment shouldn’t protect vile bigots. #PhilRobertson

There isn’t anything in that sentence that makes a modicum of sense. Obviously, the First Amendment “protects” people who disagree on the issue of same-sex marriage with overheated talk-show hosts. The First Amendment protects even speech that is unpopular in Manhattan television studios (go figure!). Also, because Morgan was upset by a musing on the Christian understanding of sin, he was suggesting, as United Liberty’s Jason Pye pointed out, that perhaps the Bible isn’t protected by the First Amendment. Ponder that thought for a moment, and you start to understand why Morgan had trouble keeping his audience.

But the first part of Morgan’s statement is also typical of his style. I’m not sure exactly what constitutes an “assault rifle devotee,” and I suspect neither does Morgan. As National Review’s Charles Cooke (who also has a British accent, defying Carr’s stereotype) has pointed out:

We can argue all day about the silly “assault weapon” term, but “assault rifle” actually has a meaning. An “assault rifle” means that the rifle can be switched between safe (off, in layman’s terms), semi-automatic, and automatic fire. Weapons such as these are heavily regulated under federal law, have never been used by a civilian to murder anybody, and are strictly illegal in California. The definition of “assault rifle” is not controversial.

The terms one uses in such debates are important, especially where the law is concerned. Morgan never seemed interested in such details, because he never seemed interested in the subjects at all. He was given plenty of time to engage seriously in the issues at hand. He didn’t want to. He wanted to yell at people. That’s his right–and it’s CNN’s right to pay him to do so. The experiment failed because he refused to recognize the rights of others and the act got old, fast. Just as it would have without an accent.

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