I was initially surprised that the news of Piers Morgan's fall from grace resulting in the cancellation of his CNN prime time talk show had been news in the UK, but I guess the prospect of Morgan returning to Blightly was sufficiently generally appalling that the Brits were quite concerned about the prospect.
Yesterday Piers had comedienne Chelsea Handler on his show. Noted for brutal honesty, such as discussing personal abortion and DUI stories, Chelsea didn't disappoint but possibly not in the way Piers expected. The discussion following the show's commercial break was quite enlightening:
Chelsea: I mean, in the middle of the commercial break – I want your viewers to know; they must know, because they're probably following you on Twitter. I mean you can't even pay attention for 60 seconds. You're a terrible interviewer.Piers has - or had - the 9pm-10pm slot on CNN, which is prime time. (West Coast viewers, 3 hours behind the East Coast times quoted, can usually see the show live at 6pm Pacific or repeated 3 hours later). There's a constant battle for viewers between CNN and Fox in the evening, and Fox announced in August that newscaster Megyn [yes, really] Kelly would be taking over the Fox 9pm slot from previous incumbent Sean Hannity. Piers seemed keen on the challenge, tweeting "Bring it on, Megyn Kelly". Kelly duly brought it on, starting in early October and two months later was beating Piers 5 to 1 in viewers, up 10%-20% from Hannity.
Piers: Well, you just weren't keeping my attention. It's more of an issue with you than me.
Chelsea: That's not my problem. This is your show, you have to pay attention to the guest that you invited on your show.
Piers: If they're interesting enough ...[cut off]
Chelsea: Listen, it doesn't matter how interesting I am. You signed up for this job. [..] Well, maybe that's why your job is coming to an end.
Why did CNN viewers turn away from Piers in droves? Kelly is clearly easier on the eyes than Piers, but that can't be the whole story. I think Tim Stanley in the Telegraph gets closest to it:
But he acted as though no one had ever thought to discuss the subject[gun control] before. Like, ever. He tried to make gun control his own personal crusade, to "school" the Americans on law and order. And he displayed a crass insensitivity towards issues such as the importance of the Constitution or the American tradition of self-reliance. The scale of his ego was extraordinary. No US liberal has ever managed to challenge their country's fundamental respect for gun ownership. Why did he imagine that a guy with an English accent – the accent of George III no less – would succeed where Bill Clinton, Teddy Kennedy or Barack Obama had failed?Americans really don't like being told, imperiously, what to do. Piers did this all the time, and worse wouldn't admit when he'd been beaten. He invited young Republican Ben Shapiro to debate guns with him after the Sandy Hook shooting, and had his clock unexpectedly cleaned - Shapiro tried to load the game by going for a "town hall" format which would have stuffed the audience with shooting victims and Shapiro wisely refused, telling him 1-on-1 or nothing. So, nothing.
The embarrassing thing about the whole Piers Morgan affair is that it has turned the tables on us Brits. We always insisted that we were the courteous ones and the Americans were the boobs. In this case, it's been the other way around.
Looking at interview styles, probably the best comparison on Fox with Piers is Bill O'Reilly who hosts the 8pm-9pm slot. O'Reilly has a similar format, inviting guests to discuss contentious issues 1-on-1, or sometimes 2-on-1, with him. One key difference, I think, is that O'Reilly doesn't try to lay traps - he relies on his (formidable) preparation and debating skills. Unlike Piers he has regular guests from a range of political views - liberal Juan Williams is one of the favourites - and the debate can get quite shouty at times but the guests generally know O'Reilly, know the position he'll take, and have wrestled with him often enough to give a good showing. More important, O'Reilly doesn't belittle them. He tries to reason, and even if you don't agree with his (often reactionary) position you can see that he's playing the man rather than the ball. Piers by contrast is a classic bully, trying to belittle opponents.
CNN's Anderson Cooper is a marked contrast to Piers; I've seen Anderson do interviews, and he can be tough - Greg Smith who resigned publicly from Goldman Sachs did an Anderson Cooper interview, and Cooper didn't go easy on him at all - but he's fair. You feel as if he's trying to make the interviewee explain what he's hiding from the audience, rather than browbeating the interviewee from a position of power just to establish a pecking order like a bully does. It would be hard to overstate how much most Americans look down on bullies. The War of Independence was essentially a reaction against perceived bullying (imposition by means of might) of the American colony by King George III. Piers is a classic bully, and Americans simply don't like that kind of person.
Interestingly it seems that even his own staff weren't keen on him:
"The makeup girls suffered the worst — he was rude and belligerent," says our source. "The general feeling is Morgan didn't show any respect to anyone working under him — the people who were trying to make him look good."It would be uncharitable to note how hard a job that is. But this is Piers Morgan, so screw charity.