Piers Morgan used to have anxiety dreams about Rupert Murdoch. Morgan was 28, in January 1994, when he was summoned from London to Miami for a meeting of unknown purpose with the fearsome tycoon who owned the British tabloid The Sun, for which Morgan edited an entertainment-gossip column. On that day, barefoot and with their pants rolled up, they strolled through the surf for three hours, as Morgan tried to impress Murdoch with his opinions on the British newspaper market. Only at a party that evening did Morgan learn why he was there, when Murdoch introduced him as “the new editor of the News of the World.” It was a life-changing elevation. NotW was the largest-circulation newspaper in Britain, a weekly counterpart to the daily Sun, and Morgan was suddenly the youngest editor of a major British paper in decades.
Murdoch put tremendous pressure on his editors, and the rookie found himself having the same nightmares over and over. In one, he and Murdoch are walking along the beach in Miami and an enormous wave engulfs them. Just then, Morgan would wake up in a cold sweat. In the other, right as he’s about to go into a meeting with Murdoch, his teeth fall out. “I never understood what they meant at all,” Morgan says over a steak dinner at the Beverly Wilshire seventeen years later. “But last night I had a similar dream.”
Of course, Morgan is now the host of Piers Morgan Tonight, the nightly hourlong show that replaced Larry King Live on CNN in January, and in some ways is further from Murdoch’s reach than he’s ever been. Though a notorious tabloid editor in England for more than a decade—first at NotW, then at the Daily Mirror—until recently Morgan was a relative unknown on these shores. He was familiar chiefly to reality-TV aficionados, as the chain-mail-wearing, Omarosa-thrashing winner of Celebrity Apprentice and as a panelist on America’s Got Talent, where for all six seasons he has been the buzzer-happy hanging judge at ease crushing the dreams of angel-faced 6-year-olds. To those who knew him only as a pantomime villain, or not at all, it seemed inexplicable when he was handed Larry King’s nine-o’clock hour on CNN, one of the fattest plums in cable news. It was as if 60 Minutes had hired Gordon Ramsay as its newest correspondent.
Morgan might have an unconventional résumé for “The Worldwide Leader in News,” but then again, maybe it was inevitable, given the populist drift of media, that a Fleet Street commoner would eventually ascend to King’s cable-news throne. And the appointment has turned out to be a smart move by CNN. Piers Morgan Tonight is doing better than many had expected, and its host has proved a more rigorous interviewer than his predecessor. In August, Christine O’Donnell, the former Senate candidate, walked off his show after calling him “rude”; Morgan responded that she was “being so weird.” The episode was one of several recently that goosed ratings and broke through into the larger conversation, in part thanks to Morgan’s able social-media self-promotion. On Twitter, he has racked up 1.3 million followers through a retweet-bait cocktail of celebrity, flattery, news, insults, and braggadocio.
Still, CNN chose an unfortunate year to hire a famously aggressive British editor who, in his own writings, has fairly boasted of practicing the darker tabloid arts. In The Insider, the first of three memoirs the 46-year-old Morgan has already published, he recalled that while he was editor of the Daily Mirror, “someone had got hold” of Kate Winslet’s recently changed phone number. “I never like to ask how,” he wrote. In a 2006 Daily Mail column, he humblebragged that he felt guilty for the ill-fated Paul McCartney–Heather Mills marriage, because he had introduced the two at an event, and described having once been “played a tape of a message Paul had left for Heather on her mobile phone.” He described to British GQ a particular method of hacking into a celebrity’s phone as “pretty well-known” and seemed to minimize its seriousness, saying, “Loads of newspaper journalists were doing it.” In another memoir, he described a 2002 scoop in which the Mirror “learn[ed] of” an affair-exposing voice-mail left by a well-known soccer manager for a TV personality.
All this was ancient history from across the ocean until, with the eruption of the phone-hacking story as global news this summer, it suddenly wasn’t. By July, with Murdoch shuttering the 168-year-old News of the World, top News Corp. executives resigning and being arrested, and Murdoch himself testifying in a parliamentary hearing on what he called “the most humble day of my life,” Morgan found himself having to deflect attention away from his tabloid past, while at the same time relentlessly promoting his new gig. Anyone would find it stressful, and in the past year, the old anxiety dreams have returned.