Recently on CNN, Piers Morgan sat at a table across from Ricky Gervais and grilled him about gun control. “Iowa has been giving out gun permits to blind people,” he told the comedian. “Not just partially blind people, but completely blind people, who aren’t allowed, legally, to drive cars.” Gervais stifled a smile. “Well, I learned about this through one of your tweets,” he offered. “And I understand you thought this was a bad idea.” The CNN chyron chimed in: “GUNS FOR THE BLIND?!”
Morgan’s gun-control activism has been a constant cable-news hum over the past year, his reformist ardor mounting nightly. There was the now-infamous interview with sad-sack right-wing radio host Alex Jones, who ranted unintelligibly while Morgan asked him to calm down. There was the sit-down with gun-rights activist Larry Pratt during which Morgan exploded: “You’re an unbelievably stupid man, aren’t you?” In recent months, the decibel level has risen—conveniently tied to the release of Morgan’s new book, Shooting Straight: Guns, Gays, God, and George Clooney, which charts Morgan’s metamorphosis from gossipmonger into moral crusader.
Morgan has already published a bushel of memoirs, gabby catalogs of his celebrity run-ins. (“Then Fergie called to offer her sympathy. ‘Believe me, Piers, I’ve been there,’ she said, her voice quivering with emotion.”) These books are lively and crass, the chronicles of a bottom-feeder happily in his element. But Shooting Straight is pure self-righteousness. It features one particularly revealing bit in which Morgan attends the premiere of “The Newsroom”—a show unafraid to inflict its own gut punches of sanctimony—and marvels at anchor Will McAvoy’s perfect integrity. “ ‘The Newsroom’ showed me what’s missing from my own show—a voice,” Morgan writes. And then he set his sights on gun control.
It can be hard to reconcile this newly high-minded Piers Morgan with the Piers Morgan who built his reputation in the Fleet Street muckraking corps. Even in that shamelessly scummy milieu, Morgan was a standout. At 28, he became the youngest-ever editor of News of the World, where his many scoops included a tell-all from Divine Brown, the prostitute who serviced Hugh Grant in his car on Sunset Boulevard. (Front page: “It’s THAT tart in THAT dress.”) He once gleefully ran photos of a TV presenter kissing a woman who was not his wife, then got punched in the head by said presenter. In 2004, he was fired as editor of the Daily Mirror for printing doctored photos of British soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners. He eventually sought refuge in reality TV. By the time CNN hired him to replace Larry King—billing him as “a little bit dangerous” in its ads—Morgan was familiar in the U.S. primarily for his role on “America’s Got Talent,” as an arbiter of boy bands and piano-playing pigs.
And yet there isn’t much daylight between the two versions of Morgan. In gun control as in celebrity sex busts, he is a mastermind at the game of cheap provocation. This is what made him a star in the tabloid world, where shock value is news value and blatancy is currency. The trouble is that he has channeled the very same sensibility into his anti-gun campaign. You might call it tabloidism as activism, sensationally and recklessly applied.
Gun violence, it turns out, hasn’t always gotten Morgan’s journalistic juices flowing. In his 2005 book, The Insider, he describes his initial reaction to the 1996 Dunblane school massacre: “Just after 10am, the newsdesk told me there were reports of a shooting at a school in Scotland. I was not immediately that interested. Scottish stories rarely get into the English edition unless they are pretty spectacular.” In Shooting Straight, Morgan revisits this episode, but this time he simply declares: “I was determined that something meaningful would be done to try and prevent anything like this from happening again.”
Morgan’s current determination is hard to deny. His effectiveness is less clear. For one thing, there’s the way he handles guests. Morgan tends to let hotheads like Jones rant unchecked (ostensibly to expose their insanity, though after a point, he is just giving them a bigger platform). But then he steamrolls authors and academics whose logic is actually worth debunking. Take economist and gun-rights proponent John Lott, whose head Morgan permitted to occupy one side of a split-screen while he talked over him for ten minutes. Lott, author of the book More Guns, Less Crime, attempted feebly to interject, but Morgan wasn’t having it. “I am going to keep talking, so I suggest you keep quiet,” the host informed the guest. To which Lott replied, shoulders slumping: “I don’t see what the point of having anybody on is if you’re going to talk for ninety percent of the time.” And still Morgan barreled on.
Even Morgan’s toughness is mostly cosmetic. He makes a show of head-shaking and accusatory pointing, but his questions are often less spiky than they sound. “Do you like being so polarizing?” he asked Ann Coulter, each syllable distinct and freighted, as if there could be no query more controversial. A favored tactic is to demand some highly specific gun-violence statistic from his guests—say, “How many gun murders were there in Britain last year?”—and then blast them when they can’t summon the figure.
Of course, every political movement needs its loudmouths and its show ponies. And clearly cable news is a landscape full of over-emotive anchors. Morgan, however, is in a class of his own. When Anderson Cooper berated Mary Landrieu over the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the moment was certainly theatrical. But it was also a valuable clarification of the government’s negligence. And it felt genuine, proof that emotional combat can be a useful journalistic tactic when deployed sparingly. Morgan’s version is louder and sloppier. Pumped full of a sense of his own mission, he is a caricature of what gun owners imagine their antagonists to be: smug, patronizing urbanites. So he often ends up playing into the anxieties of right-wing extremists rather than puncturing them. He once compared American gun culture to the “racist culture” of previous decades, prompting one liberal guest to reply, “That’s not fair, a Southern gun owner is not like a Klan member—I mean, come on.” Above all, he has reduced one of the most sensitive, knotty issues in U.S. politics into a mere soapbox for the Piers Morgan brand.
Still, even if an assault weapons ban is never passed, even if Alex Jones continues his talk-radio reign of terror forever, at least Morgan can comfort himself with the validation he seems to prize most: benedictions from celebrities. As he notes in Shooting Straight, his newfound purpose has won him a thumbs-up from Kiefer Sutherland (“It’s one of the bravest things I’ve seen anyone do on American television for a very long time”) and a tweet from Rosie O’Donnell (“U are doing a great job”). It’s nice to have endorsements from famous friends, but U can’t really call that progress.
Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic.