Morgan adopted the master of major lip as his mentor-model

His Backstory is Blank for Most Television Viewers

Where did Piers Morgan come from? And is there any way to send him back? Reviewing the debut “gets”—Oprah! Rudy! Condoleezza!—of Larry King’s blustery British heir, the author examines the failures behind Morgan’s success.

Illustration by André Carrilho
April 2011 reprint Vanity Fair

If you’re going to go in, go in big. Mount your ego on monster-truck tires and plow ahead. This is how Piers Morgan, answering destiny’s Tarzan call, geared himself up for the mission of filling the creaking throne of CNN’s prime-time institution Larry King, who was retiring after a long, long reign as cable news’s premier celebrity interviewer and kibitzer. King had seen all the giants come and go—from Marlon Brando to Anna Nicole Smith—and now it was time for him to go, too, up into the bat belfry. It was time for new blood, a change of attitude, a bold reset. Piers Morgan was made to measure. He had attitude in spades. Not for him an Eve Harrington show of faux humility, the glistening hope that America would accept him into its heart, adopt him as one of its own. As befits the Season Seven winner of Donald Trump’s tragic charade party Celebrity Apprentice, Morgan adopted the master of major lip as his mentor-model, talking himself up as if ready to take his rightful place in the Manhattan skyline, a landmark head. Like Trump, Morgan practiced pugnacity for maximum P.R. effect, announcing that Madonna would be banned from his show and baiting her as an old gray mare that ain’t what she used to be: “Lady Gaga is half her age, twice as good-looking, twice as talented, and twice as hot.” Morgan also reveled in Twitter slap-fights, boasting that he would mop the floor with doubters and detractors such as John Schiumo, the 24-hour cable news channel NY1’s prime-time news host, whom he warned, “You’re like Stephen Baldwin and Vinny Pastore—they thought they were big shots in NY too until I wiped them in Celeb Apprentice.” Yes, those were quite a pair of titans he toppled.

For the debut week as host of Piers Morgan Tonight, the host didn’t let modesty tie his tongue in a bow. He made a wager with his gala opening guest, Oprah Winfrey, over which one of them would score quarterback and former dog mistreater Michael Vick as a guest first. “Rudy’s a tough guy, but tonight I’ve got tough questions for him,” he said in the intro to his hour with former New York mayor and presidential delusionist Rudy Giuliani. “Howard Stern may think he’s the king of all media, but I’m the British king of all media,” he boasted, and when Stern jokingly asked, “How big’s your penis?,” Morgan snapped, “Bigger than yours!” (Which Stern laughingly noted was no great triumph since he was hung like a raisin.) Morgan was on a smoother wavelength in the interview with the controversial man of the moment, comic actor and auteur Ricky Gervais, who had spoken truth to power as the M.C. of the Golden Globes by making fun of Robert Downey Jr.’s stints in rehab and helping an older man off the toilet. Andrew Anthony, the television reviewer for The Observer (U.K.), captured the oily mood of mutual admiration between host and guest nicely. “Morgan played the interview as two Brits made good in the States, and the air of self-satisfaction—which Morgan wears like aftershave—sometimes threatened to reach levels of suffocating smugness.”

Many questions torment America in its dark night of the soul, questions more urgently pressing, and yet it must be asked: How did we get stuck with Piers Morgan? Who is he, why is he here, is he returnable? His backstory is a blank for most Americans, but for all of his self-fluffing, he did make a notch for himself back in London. Born in East Sussex, Morgan may not be the British king of all media, but he has touched a lot of the bases. He was the editor of the “red top” tabloid Daily Mirror, where he had cozy access to the prime minister with the bewitching teeth. “In his 11 years as editor, Morgan had at least 56 meetings with Tony Blair, many of them one-to-one,” wrote Lynn Barber in a Guardian profile of Morgan, going on to say that he seems to have had “almost a schoolboy crush” on the Tone. His tenure as editor was marred by scandal and inquiry—such as the furor over his buying shares in a company shortly before it was touted in the pages of the MirrorThe Insider (2005), his diaries documenting his days as a tabloid buccaneer, in which he gave us a backstage tour of political-journalistic incest and settled old scores. Morgan hosted several TV interview shows and a travel series too, but it was as a guest judge on Britain’s Got Talent that he became a beloved household nuisance, teleported into the same role for America’s Got Talent. As the satirical Private Eye, in whose pages he’s known as “Piers Moron,” pointed out, Morgan practiced major revisionism in the run-up to his American launch to tidy up his past: “A fawning interview in the Guardian allowed Moron to trot out some of his favorite C canards—that he was ‘cleared of insider trading’ (he wasn’t: the DTI [Department of Trade and Industry] merely announced that it was unable to prosecute him ‘on the evidence currently available’); and that the provenance of the ‘Iraqi abuse’ photographs which got him sacked from the Mirror ‘was never resolved one way or the other’ when it was demonstrated that the vehicle which was featured in them had never been in the country and the paper itself admitted that they ‘were not genuine.’ ” Dilating on this theme was Private Eye’s former editor, the sainted Richard Ingrams, who wrote in his weekly Independent column that Morgan was one of those rebounders always bouncing back higher from whatever befalls them. “Nothing succeeds like failure,” Ingrams wrote, and today by its financial columnists—and he was canned when photographs purporting to show abuse of Iraqis at the hands of British soldiers turned out to be bogus. He turned disgrace to his advantage with the best-selling publication of Morgan is “riding high, publishing books and diaries … and appearing on TV on both sides of the Atlantic to the acclaim of all the critics.”

Up to a point, Lord Copper. The acclaim Stateside was actually on the spotty side. Despite the extravagant ta-da for his opening broadcast with Oprah, critics dismissed the interview itself as ho-hum (though the ratings were stellar), with Oprah on old-pro autopilot, spinning platitudes and saving the revelation of the discovery of a long-lost half-sister for her own sob show. His interview with former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was like a Valentine’s Day date gone bad as he tossed her a series of candy kisses, such as “Do you dream of a fairy-tale wedding?” and “How would I woo you?” (To which Rice should have replied, “Woo me? Don’t you have a wife?”) Morgan got into similar distress when he turned the love lamp on Kim and Kourtney Kardashian for an endless hour, his line of inquiry running afoul of former magazine editor Bonnie Fuller, who had a hissy over at the Huffington Post. “Listen, I know the Kardashian sisters are extremely open about their lives and they were gracious to Piers—it’s why we love them [“we” do? who’s “we”?]—but there was something incredibly creepy about a 45-year-old man staring at their breasts on a national talk show and demanding relentlessly to know whether they were real or fake. Did this creep you out too?” No, Bonnie, it didn’t. First of all, the Kardashian breasts are among this country’s most precious assets and far more compelling than any of the banal inanities that come out of their mouths, which make Paris Hilton sound like Madame de Staël by comparison. Second, the real object of Morgan’s lustful attention wasn’t the Kardashian breasts, but the Kardashian brand, which he seemed to covet with mystical awe. Their ability to merchandise themselves, to commodify their every whim—this was the Cleopatra secret he sought. It made for a lobotomy session of conversation, since few things are more boring than hucksters talking about their brand. Morgan’s slavish deference to marketing success was likewise evident in his sit-down with televangelist Joel Osteen and his wife, Victoria, who nodded in sync with every point her husband made like a Republican candidate’s spouse, a blonde bobblehead with a metronomic beat. Introduced by Morgan as “the A-Rod of religion” (for preaching to a full house in Yankee Stadium), Osteen is one of those sunshine purveyors who espouse a gospel of abundance, smiling so hard that his ostensible face-lift looks as if it had been performed with a forklift. As Morgan observed, Osteen definitely personified a gospel of abundance; he looked so money on-camera. His sharp threads, his smart grooming and rippling hair, the glossy, beauty-pageant wife doting beside him—they were the Ken and Barbie Bible edition of the American Dream. This is the dream Morgan dreams, too, of becoming a name brand whose every move can be converted into a sales opportunity.

Who is to say he won’t succeed? I, for one, have learned never to bet against naked unadulterated shameless relentless ambitious careerism that can eat through steel wool (so many examples come to mind!). Morgan’s use of Twitter and other social-network platforms boosted CNN’s youth demo in its initial weeks, manna to advertisers. And when he isn’t preening and polishing his guests’ brass knobs, he can be an effective interrogator: he pressed Osteen on homosexuality until the happy face of Fundamentalism coughed up a newsmaking sound bite (“Homosexuality is a sin”) and then backpedaled into a lame, fluttery I-only-know-what-I-read-in-the-Scriptures cop-out. But the format of Piers Morgan Tonight needs shucking. The booking policy has hinged on the “big get” (Oprah, Stern, Giuliani), but there are only so many big gets until you reach the bottom of the cereal box.

And it’s a one-shot proposition. Booking a big get for the full hour leaves no one warming up in the bullpen if the interview craps out and cavalry relief is needed. Look at Larry King. He had a trophy wall of big gets over the course of his career, but what kept his show going night after night, week after week, eon after eon, were the running soap operas (O. J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, the disappearance of Chandra Levy, the death of Michael Jackson) that became floating crapshoots—countless panels of pundits and former prosecutors gnawing on the same dog bone, frothing away. Then, as tonic antidote, he’d bring on Kathy Griffin or Bill Maher, casting asperities. Going live enabled him to take viewers’ phone calls, which injected nutty spontaneity and occasional notes of sanity into the program—something the pre-taping of Morgan’s celebrity interviews precludes. Where Larry King Live served it up hot and crazy from the grill, Piers Morgan Tonight was handing out canned hams. CNN and/or P.M.T.’s producers quickly recognized the necessity of breaking out of this vacuum seal and landing square on the beat, bumping interviews with Colin Firth, Kid Rock, and similar deities to later dates in order to plug Morgan into the network’s continuing coverage of the convulsive events in Egypt. And since the Kardashian ratings fiasco, they’ve scuttled the original game plan for the show and hired a new booker, with Morgan himself announcing that in the future the full-hour celebrity séances would be awarded only to true superstars. Lucky them. But famous names, usual deadbeats, live, taped, it’s hard to care. Not when the host is a canned ham himself.

In Morning Glory, last year’s most underrated movie comedy, go-getter breakfast-show producer Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams, divine), in a burst of exasperation, explains the facts of life to journalistic warhorse Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford, face furrowed with mental indigestion): “The world has been debating news versus entertainment for years, and guess what? You lost!” Which hasn’t stopped the losing side from singing the chain-gang blues. Civic-minded souls in journalism, academe, and the mushroom farms of C-span panels can still be heard lamenting the infestation of news and politics by showbiz values, a war between informed debate and pole dancing that they (unlike Ford’s Pomeroy) recognize as a lost cause, hence their elegiac tone, the dead fly in their lemonade. The days when the words “Hollywood actor” framed Ronald Reagan like bunny fingers as an ID tag and an implied insult seem far-off and quaint: nearly everybody in politics—candidate, consultant, pundit, and Tea Party crowd extra alike—is an actor now, a shameless ham in a hoked-up reality series that never stops. (Only Mitt Romney doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo, his polished-leather insincerity unsalted with irony or anything remotely self-aware.) Mourning the fall of the judicious savant (or solon) and the rise of the preening jester is pointless, foolish; elite opinion has failed this country so miserably that it has no moral or intellectual standing left, only its club-member privileges. Think back on the Iraq war and the W.M.D.’s, the Terri Schiavo circus, the iguana contortions of John McCain under the guise of maverick integrity, the Wall Street meltdown and bailout—TV satirists and late-night hosts drove much deeper nails into the marrow of what was happening than the editorial pages of The Washington Post, that prison morgue of Beltway consensus. A new political-entertainment class has moved into the noisy void once occupied by the sage pontiffs of yore, a class just as polarized as our partisan divide: one side holding up a fun-house mirror to folly, the other side reveling in its own warped reflection.

The rival sides massed their forces on the Washington Mall before the midterm elections, summoning ignorant armies that didn’t so much clash by night as give each other askance looks across distant afternoons. On August 28, 2010, Fox News messiah Glenn Beck hosted a “Restoring Honor” revival meeting featuring sexy guest star Sarah Palin, much as Bob Hope would roll out Raquel Welch in white go-go boots on his U.S.O. tours to give our fighting men a morale lift in their khakis. Even in a clown era, Beck is an unlikely crusade leader. Round and beige, he resembles one of the squeamish pod sperm awaiting launch instructions upstream in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. Like radio god Rush Limbaugh, Beck combines the roles of pedagogue and demagogue into a single luncheon meat, slathered in blather. But where Limbaugh stays on track in the radio studio, taking a single theme and pounding it flat, Beck is a grab-bag collage artist of half-baked ideas and lore, grafting bits of history and chunks of speculation into a clanking Frankenstein monster with Barack Obama’s face sewn onto Karl Marx’s head and one arm raised in permanent Nazi salute—“liberal Fascism” as an evil action figure. Easily excitable, Beck expresses himself on a glandular level, maudlin tears springing from his squeezable head as he finds himself overcome by the dark prospects his prophecies reveal. But his big-top showmanship, like Limbaugh’s, is unquestioned, and he was able to draw an estimated 87,000-plus star-spangled fans to the Mall, despite their trepidation at being in a city so abundant with black people.

Two months later, Beck’s inspirational call was answered by Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” a political-vaudeville gala featuring music by the Roots and John Legend, Colbert prancing around in an Evel Knievel jumpsuit, and capped with a secular sermon by Stewart that castigated the media for the melodramatic polarization of our politics—“the country’s 24-hour politico pundit perpetual panic conflictinator” was what he called this spew machine. So earnest, incisive, and eloquent was Stewart’s peroration (reminiscent of the end scene in Scrooged, when Bill Murray’s cynic gets sincere) that one liberal blogger saluted him as “our first Jewish president,” mensch in chief. Others were less wowed. Bill Maher, the more libertarian lone-wolf host of his own HBO series and another high-ranking member of the political-entertainment caste, considered the Stewart-Colbert rally a Kabuki show of empty calories: “If you’re going to have a rally, you might as well make it about something.” Janet Malcolm, covering the event for The New York Review of Books (how odd—New York Review correspondents so seldom venture outdoors), found Stewart’s sentiments commendable but his rhetoric mushy and the entire event too aglow in its own huggable goodness. “We were at a giant preen-in,” she wrote.

Despite such criticisms, optimists took heart that the Stewart-Colbert rally attracted twice as many congregants as Beck’s (more than 200,000 was the estimate), which seemed like a victory for tolerance, rationality, and comedy over flag-waving, flabby-jowled demon-hunting. A few days later, however, came the midterm elections, and optimists could be heard hyperventilating into paper bags, overcome with panic attacks over the Republican gains. It was Beck’s militia that had the momentum and lit up the scoreboard, the cool blue of sanity no match for the red-hot farrago of doomsday rhetoric. A blogger named David Seaton provided the keenest insight into the tactical superiority of Beck’s home-brewed surrealism. “To understand what Beck is doing, to understand him, you must suspend your capacity for rational thought and just let the emotions wash over you and try to take note of them as they assault your endocrine system,” Seaton wrote. As America enters the downward slope of empire—its debt mounting, the disparity between wealthy and poor continuing to chasm, the environmental ravages becoming irreversible, high unemployment becoming the cruel norm—the Richie Riches have a vested interest in misdirecting people by blaming the powerless for the sins of the powerful. Incoherence isn’t a bug in Beck’s software program, it’s the primary directive. Seaton: “That is what the Tea Party, Fox, etc is all about: keeping people from thinking straight. The idea is to play on people’s emotions: fear, hate, racism, xenophobia, just to keep them from doing the math. The Teabaggers, Beck, [Gingrich] and Fox [News] are often criticized for not making any sense This is not a failure of communication or an error on their part That is the object of the exercise: to make rational thought difficult or impossible due to emotional overload.” (My italics.)

The gap between those who grasp this and those clinging to the floating driftwood was dramatized in a Rolling Stone panel discussion in which renegade journalist Matt Taibbi flat out called the Tea Partiers “crazy,” much to the tea-pinkie dismay of David Gergen and pollster Peter Hart. You simply can’t write off such a large slice of the electorate as mental patients, Gergen demurred. (Gergen’s the Perry Como of demurral.) Sure you can, Taibbi replied. “I interview these people. They’re not basing their positions on the facts—they’re completely uninterested in the facts. They’re voting completely on what they see and hear on Fox News and afternoon talk radio, and that’s enough for them.” This disinformation addiction puts the political satirists on the left at a disadvantage—how do you poke fun at nonsense that’s intended to be nonsensical, an ideological crack pipe blowing smoke into millions of brains? Swiftian satire clicks only for those already compos mentis.

Glenn Beck isn’t the only flea-circus ringmaster on the right. There’s Kelsey Grammer, whose sitcom persona as Frasier Crane has glazed him with the aura of a patrician patron of opera, fine wine, and posh elocution, the modern-day equivalent of a pretentious fop out of Congreve or Molière. With his super-freaky marital and extramarital escapades, and his willingness to do drag on Broadway in La Cage aux Folles, he would appear to have all the fixings of a liberal wacko—one of us, as it were. (He’s so much more charming than Jon Voight, who shows up at Tea Party rallies and rattles on like a derelict.) But Grammer is also the front man for a mega-Web site/fledgling cable channel called RightNetwork, which pledges allegiance to Norman Rockwell values of Americana but has under its glossy veneer another bughouse operation. Its pundit-in-residence is Jim Hoft, who once carried a coffin to the home of Democratic congressman Russ Carnahan, and one of its frequent contributors is a ranter named Robin of Berkeley, who presents herself as psychotherapist and political leper trapped behind the enemy lines of liberalism, where conservatives have to blink at each other in Morse code for fear of being overheard and tongue-lashed by radical lesbians, and not in a good way. Like so many pseudo-populist operations, RightNetwork is funded by a wealthy benefactor with an agenda, Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider, whose media outfit also owns the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. It was Snider who invited Sarah Palin to drop the hockey puck at the Flyers’ season opener in 2008, and Palin’s been dropping pucks ever since.

Like soul brother Beck, Sarah Palin has moonshot herself into a zero-gravity zone that is beyond parody, where brazen self-caricature takes on the bold outlines of cartoon stardom and nothing she does perturbs her fan base. They have adopted her as their mommy savior and the ridicule and criticism she receives only endear her more to the faithful, proof of how much she gets under liberals’ prickly skin. With each new iteration of herself (tweeter, best-selling author, Fox News political analyst, Facebook avenger), Palin becomes more of an infotainment fembot, an irresistible force impervious to the political rules that hamstring lesser phonies. Had Al Gore or John Kerry made the gaffe Palin made over the Korean conflict (“Obviously, we have got to stand with our North Korean allies”), it would have been pin-the-tail-on-their-donkey-butts for weeks, whereas for Palin it’s just another dot in the pointillism of her ongoing cavalcade. Palin’s worst enemies have never been David Letterman, the “lamestream media,” or Katie Couric but her own insatiability for attention, a narcissism with no Off button or volume knob. With her reality series on TLC, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, “Snowflake Snooki” (as she is known on some liberal sites) may have extended her brand a bridge too far. The huge ratings of her debut program plummeted 40 percent for the second, and, tellingly, conservative publications normally in her camp ridiculed her gooey, ungovernable ego. In The Weekly Standard (whose editor, William Kristol, was one of the original talent scouts who discovered Palin), Matt Labash wrote, “It’s hard to tell sometimes where Sarah ends and Alaska begins. The Last Frontier of Alaska is as wild and untamed as Sarah Palin’s ambitions. So it makes sense that Sarah loves Alaska, because loving Alaska is like loving herself. And that’s what Sarah Palin’s Alaska is really about: self-love.” One pitfall with becoming a reality-TV star is that reality doesn’t always stick to the script, as Palin’s co-star on one episode, Kate Gosselin of TLC’s ill-fated Jon & Kate Plus 8, can attest. Gosselin was undone by her husband’s infidelity. Palin, a control freak in the very BB-gun pellets of her eyes, politically can’t afford to have her entire family go Kardashian. America can accept one teenage daughter of a family-values candidate getting pregnant out of wedlock, but two looks careless, as Oscar Wilde might say. If Willow becomes round yon virgin with child, kiss 2012 buh-bye.

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