Piers Morgan, CNN's identity crisis, and how the network can rebuild

The CNN host is leaving soon -- why did it all go so wrong?

By Daniel D'Addario

Published February 24, 2014 7:28PM (EST)

Piers Morgan has announced his impending departure from his nightly series on CNN -- and it's an open question as to how CNN will follow his act.

Morgan never connected with audiences, a failure New York Times columnist David Carr, who broke the news of Morgan's leaving, attributed to his Britishness and specifically to Morgan's advocacy on behalf of new gun regulation. That seems like part of the story, but hardly the whole thing: Morgan's point of view seemed more consistently aggressive than British. The moments that were most memorable, on "Piers Morgan Tonight," were the ones where he needlessly antagonized his guests -- like, recently, Janet Mock, the transgender activist he hectored, or Condoleezza Rice, whom he pestered at length over her marital status.

To say that Morgan is a victim of his full-throated advocacy against guns is to let him off too easily. He's victim to a phenomenon familiar to CNN: Neither consistently liberal as is MSNBC nor consistently conservative as is Fox News, CNN must find some sort of hook to appeal to its audiences, and it has chosen a sort of outrage machine that doesn't align itself with either party. CNN is the network that exists to turn liberal niceties on their head without being conservative -- it's trolling. Morgan decided to make a big stir over his perceived mistreatment at the hands of Mock; it ended up blowing up in his face, but his citing "cisphobia" as specific prejudice against him was classic current-era CNN. It framed the debate as being between a truth-teller who doesn't do parties or credos against the hypersensitive.

This reiterates itself in Don Lemon, who becomes the face of the network whenever a racial debate unfolds. Lemon has presented as factual that the "knockout game," purportedly committed by black youths against white people, exists; that people of the same race look alike; that new "Saturday Night Live" featured player Sasheer Zamata "is going to have to be a whole lot funnier than she is black." That's right -- take your liberal pieties (doubt that the knockout game is a real thing, dubiousness about sweeping statements about post-racial America) and stuff them! It's present, too, in the work of Erin Burnett, whose early segments on Occupy Wall Street set a tone: they were loud enough to make the point, over and over, that she thought Occupy was ridiculous, without exposing baseline knowledge of Occupy or a coherent political philosophy other than "Come on, get real!" That's the problem with being "apolitical" -- unable to appeal to either base, you must pitch your tone broadly and treat as scapegoats folks, whether Occupy or trans, you may just know little about.

CNN's replacement for Morgan -- yet to be named -- will set the tone for the network's future coverage in the way Morgan's predecessor, the amiable and neutral Larry King, suited an era when CNN was cable news' Tiffany network. It's an extraordinary request, to find a potential host for an hourlong newscast that's at once nonpartisan and engaging -- which is why reporting on expansion of the network's documentary holdings has been so exciting. Morgan may have been too British for American TV, but he represented the worst of London's Fleet Street culture; British news channels also invest resources into documentaries. This could be CNN's chance to finally bring in a worthy import.

Daniel D'Addario

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