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14 November 2013updated 27 Sep 2015 5:32am

How Piers Morgan went from bad to dangerous

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.

By laura bennett

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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.

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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.