It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. When the suits at CNN were searching around for a successor to crotchety, unfocused old Larry King—“There’s a lot of good restaurants in Philadelphia. . . . What do you make of Dancing with the Stars?”—they settled on 45-year-old Piers Morgan, a veteran British tabloid editor who had found his way onto such television froth as You Can’t Fire Me, I’m -Famous and America’s Got Talent. Morgan seemed to have just the right combination of transatlantic charm, pop sensibility, and social skills to keep CNN’s evening talk franchise going.
Except that he didn’t. Instead of charm, Morgan seemed to exude a genuine distaste for the United States of America and its benighted inhabitants, folkways, and politics. Instead of pop chat, he quickly settled into political harangues and crusades, seemingly obsessed with U.S. gun laws and culture. He didn’t converse with guests so much as argue, or better yet shut them off, deploying the host’s control of the microphone. Ratings plummeted.
And last week, the axe inevitably fell. CNN announced that his catastrophic tenure would end this month, and even Morgan seemed to comprehend the need for euthanasia: American viewers, he complained, had never warmed to “a British guy debating American cultural issues” and had grown understandably “tired of me banging on” about gun control. As it happens, The Scrapbook is not averse to some gun-control measures; but we certainly had grown weary of Piers Morgan banging on.
The problem is a curious one, and slightly deeper than left-right politics. What was CNN thinking? In theory, it is true that a British chat-show host might prove an entertaining counterweight to standard American fare: He speaks the language, and can learn the names and faces; but as a foreigner, he approaches America from a distance, providing a certain informed objectivity. Indeed, Piers Morgan might have been another David Frost—except that CNN appears to have forgotten that Frost’s attempt at an American talk show (1969-72) was similarly unsuccessful, lasting just as long as Morgan’s.
It is interesting to note that many high-ranking perches in American journalism have been occupied by Britons, and that some of these expats—Tina Brown, Richard Wolffe, Anna Wintour, among others—have achieved a certain renown. The reverse, however, is practically unknown: No American edits any British newspaper, or appears regularly on the BBC. Why? One explanation is that, while Americans may not know much about the world, the world knows a great deal about America. Another is that journalism here is democratic, not a closed corporation or old-boy’s club as in London. Maybe executives at Condé Nast or CNN are just impressed by well-dressed people with British accents.
Whatever the reason, the results have been mixed, and sometimes disastrous. Even MSNBC had to get rid of its resident snarling Briton, Martin Bashir, when his contempt for the host country became intolerable. Piers Morgan is merely the latest example of George Bernard Shaw’s famous comment that the United States and Great Britain are divided by a common language. Perhaps the CNN executives now shopping for a replacement host will remember this time that, to coin a phrase, America’s got talent.