For the debut week of their show, Morgan and his producer Jonathan Wald went all-out in booking a blockbuster lineup that launched with Oprah Winfrey and included Howard Stern and George Clooney. The haters were lying in wait. “Who is he,” James Wolcott asked in a Vanity Fair column, “why is he here, is he returnable?” But to their dismay, the ratings the first night were 2.1 million viewers, good enough to beat MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow if not Fox News’s Sean Hannity, and a full 219 percent above Larry King’s average audience in the final quarter of 2010. Since then, Morgan has benefited from a freakishly eventful nine months, from the Japanese earthquake–tsunami–nuclear disaster to the killing of Osama bin Laden to the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor. Through it all, Morgan’s show has remained in third place in the time slot, behind Hannity and Maddow. “They are at least not bleeding like they were,” a TV insider observes of CNN, “but I would not call the Piers Morgan show the shot in the arm they need.” Still, by comparison with King’s terrible final year, Morgan’s ratings have been a stark improvement, averaging 33 percent higher in the all-important 25–54 demographic and steadily closing in on Maddow’s. In August, his show was up 52 percent in the demo. “Piers Morgan went into a time slot that the previous host held 25 years,” says Jautz, now CNN/U.S. president. “Not only has he held that audience, but he’s grown it, and grown it significantly. That’s a significant accomplishment.”
New York: Have your views evolved as to what you consider desirable journalistic practices?
P.M.: I think journalists get into murky waters when they use the words “desirable journalistic practices.”
On Monday, September 19, CNN viewers tuning in to Piers Morgan Tonight were treated to the spit-take sight of Morgan, dark knight of Fleet Street, aggressively interrogating Joe McGinniss, an author who famously served as a case study of reportorial ethics in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer. In the lead-in for the episode, Morgan asked: Has Joe McGinniss gone too far?”
McGinniss had recently published The Rogue, a book about Sarah Palin, and in the course of his research he had moved—at the unsolicited invitation of the owner—into the house next door to the Palins in Alaska. The mainstream press had largely ignored the book, except to sniff, as the Times did, at its “caustic, unsubstantiated gossip.” Morgan, who in the past might have been expected to congratulate McGinniss on his moxie, instead seemed to adopt the conventional fuddy-duddy line, saying to McGinniss that “the criticisms are that you sort of dipped into the tabloid mire a little too much,” that the book included “salacious details,” and that McGinniss moving in next door was “creepy” and “a bit weird.” It was possible to agree with all of these observations and still find them a little disappointing coming from the great Piers Morgan.
Morgan himself seems to wrestle with the moral convolutions of his transition to Establishment journalist. On Twitter only a few days before the McGinniss interview, he came to the defense of a columnist for the Independent who had recently admitted to several instances of plagiarism. “Got to laugh at all the British journalists moralising about [Johann Hari],” Morgan tweeted. “Such paragons of ethically perfect virtue, one and all. Not. Even a flawed @JohannHari101 is considerably more principled and valuable as a journalist than most of his hypocritical critics.”
It was classic Morgan to side with someone accused of ethical infractions against the Fourth Estate’s self-appointed moral arbiters, but the parsing seemed muddled, especially given that the Twittersphere soon lit up with people coming to McGinniss’s defense in much the way Morgan had with Hari.* “Shame,” wrote one tweeter. “Piers Morgan was absolutely rude and unprofessional towards Joe McGinniss.”