Fundamentally, Piers Morgan lost his prime time CNN show because audiences were tanking. Starting out with an audience of two million on his debut and losing four-fifths of that in three years is a disaster few networks can stomach. But why were American viewers so put off by him?
Writing on this site, Luke de Pulford has a theory: that coddled US audiences just weren’t able to handle the raw irreverence and aggression of British journalism. A quiescent, deferential people, Americans are so used to a “veneered, plastic presentation of the news” that they can’t handle “the limey equivalent”. Piers was rejected not for being Piers Morgan, but because audiences couldn’t stomach his uncompromising Britishness.
Nonsense. It’s the UK, not the US, that has the strict rules that bind political and public-affairs programming to official neutrality. The US news media offers viewers the same options afforded to the British newspaper buyer: a range of ideologically consistent outlets to which the partisan can nod along without frequently encountering opposing points of view. It’s a bear pit, from the same news media culture that produced radio “shock jocks”.
Surely then the notion that American’s can’t handle rough-and-tumble news is rubbish. As one of Morgan’s guests/victims put it: “Americans like a lively debate, but Morgan failed one basic rule: to debate the issue itself rather than make everything personal.”
Thus nor can it be said that Morgan’s personality had nothing to do with it. At least, it’s not being said by many American commentators. If Time magazine is to be believed, the problem with trying to diagnose the reason for the failure of Morgan’s show is that there are so many plausible reasons for people to dislike the man that picking a single one is a matter of personal preference.
But if there is one area in which Morgan’s Britishness was a definite handicap, aside from his continuous tweeting about cricket and ‘soccer’, then it must be guns. Outlets as diverse as the New York Times and the National Review have picked up on how firearms became “a veritable mania that threatened to destroy his focus”, delivered in the style of “King George III, staring down his nose at the unruly colonies and wondering how to bring the savages to heel”. According to Variety magazine:
“There’s no way to quantify how much of a factor the discussion of gun control on “Piers Morgan Live” has contributed to its ratings (which were never all that great to begin with), but the show’s numbers have fallen more sharply since it became a frequent subject on the show.”
It’s not that you need to be pro-gun to handle the topic in the US – there are plenty of intelligent, well-informed American commentators who support gun control. But Britain does not provide you with the experience and knowledge required even to be an effective gun-control advocate in the United States, because the UK does not have a firearms debate.
This country has an aversion to firearms – whether in the hands of the police or civilians – which is as profoundly cultural as the attachment to guns is in vast swathes of the US. Although we fancy ourselves civilised technocrats who simply took the “evidence-based” approach to the issue, the fact is that our stances are just as instinctive and gut-level as those that so mystify us when we read about America.
Think about it: if evidence suggested that levels of violent crime were higher since the handgun ban, would you want to repeal it? Would the burden of evidence necessary to get you to support repeal be equal to what it took to convince you to support the ban, or would it be higher?
That’s fine – every culture will have its defining traits and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it does mean that when you step into a foreign arena where well-informed people are debating it as a live issue, you’re at a serious disadvantage.
Morgan’s haughty, resolutely self-certain and under-informed positions on firearms were no different to what you’ll find in every corner of the British press whenever the issue raises its head over here. As someone interested in the issue and tries to follow it in international media the low quality of British coverage is always disheartening, but it isn’t a problem particular to Piers Morgan.
No, his particular problem was that he was not playing to a gallery of people who shared his fundamental assumptions, as British journalists are. Thus when he hosted people like John R Lott Jr, author of the seminal study More Guns, Less Crime, his skills as “the best interviewer in the world” completely deserted him as he resorted instead to personal insults, slander and shouting down the guests he was supposed to be interviewing.
This might have worked on MSNBC, which is to liberals what Fox News is to conservatives, but CNN is meant to be the haven for Americans seeking “down the middle” news and journalism. That means a substantial share, even a majority, of its viewers are gun-owners or pro-gun, and Morgan drove them off.
Hard as it might be to imagine, in the US your standard British views on guns fall on the counter-productively extreme end even of the pro-gun control spectrum. We’ve the same insulated certainty of our rightness as those conspiracy theorists who keep guns to fend off the New World Order. We just blame the “false consciousness” that stops rednecks from seeing our revealed truth on the sorceries of the National Rifle Association rather than the Freemasons or whoever.
So I think that Luke de Pulford’s article managed to misdiagnose the cause of death for Piers Morgan’s show whilst highlighting the real reason. It wasn’t that he was British per se (plenty of Brits have been taken into American hearts) but that he proved unable to step outside his cultural assumptions in order to understand and respect his guests or even his audience.
Nor could he kick that most British of vices – the need to feel superior to Americans. Whether it’s that Americans are too stupid to see the ‘truth’ about guns or too cosseted to handle British journalism, we’re always looking for ways to look down on the “unruly colonies”.
Who, honestly, can blame Americans for not wanting to tune into that every night.