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Gun Control Misfire, Sinking Ratings: Why Piers Morgan flopped

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CNN's Piers Morgan in Pasadena, Calif. (AP)

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Baldwin vs. MSNBC

Gun Control Misfire, Sinking Ratings: Why Piers Morgan flopped

Piers Morgan believes he shot himself in the foot by crusading for gun control, with his CNN show as the final casualty.

But the self-inflicted damage was far deeper than that.

The British journalist undoubtedly alienated many in the audience (and perhaps delighted others) with his crusade against guns. But when he would bring on gun advocates and rail against them as “stupid,” well, it was hard to watch.

Morgan’s political advocacy sliced at the heart of CNN’s brand, which helps explain why the network has decided to cancel his show. That, and anemic ratings, of course. (Last Wednesday, for instance, Morgan drew 345,000 viewers, compared with 860,000 for MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and 2.06 million for Fox’s Megyn Kelly.)

But it was his manner as much as anything else that was hard to swallow. Morgan is a talented broadcaster and has a certain rogue charm, but he also radiates smugness and condescension. I have no doubt he is sincere in his deep-seated belief in gun control, but it would have been a whole lot easier to take if he wasn’t berating the other side as a bunch of idiots. The notion of a Brit lecturing Americans about their laws, as David Carr observed in breaking the story, was a bit much.

It’s easy to forget now, but when Piers was tapped to replace Larry King in 2011, he cast himself as a celebrity interviewer who would occasionally do news. The show would drag as he held hourlong chats with the famous and not-so-famous, which seemed out of sync with CNN’s news-first approach. (King talked to plenty of celebs, but he was comfortable to watch, and he never made his show mainly about him.)

When breaking stories forced him to adapt, Morgan’s show became newsier and more relevant. But he still struggled, and while his post-Aurora advocacy raised his profile, it also turned him into a partisan. And he was often engaging in stunts, such as challenging an Australian cricket team and winding up with a broken rib as a player hurled balls at him.

The New Republic recently put it this way: “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.”

The fact is, if you’re going to carry a prime-time show five nights a week, people have to like you. Or at least view you as their surrogate, someone who’s fighting for you.

Time’s James Poniewozik blames “simple matters of personality: his abrasive superiority had him clashing not just with gun owners but recently with a transgender interview subject. His brash, tabloid-y air of self-promotion didn’t really fit with the rest of CNN’s vibe. His preference for longform personality interviews didn’t make him the best fit for breaking-news periods or the long slogs of campaign coverage. Meanwhile, his links as a former newspaper editor to the British phone hacking investigation didn’t do him in, but they didn’t argue in favor of keeping him.”

Morgan’s own assessment, to the New York Times: “Look, I am a British guy debating American cultural issues, including guns, which has been very polarizing, and there is no doubt that there are many in the audience who are tired of me banging on about it. That’s run its course and Jeff and I have been talking for some time about different ways of using me.”

Jeff Zucker inherited Morgan when he took over CNN, and rumors swirled for months as it became obvious that the show’s ship was sinking. Now Zucker has to find a replacement at 9 p.m.  

Who will it be? Ex-ABCer Bill Weir? Larry King, at 81, says he’s available for a Leno-reclaims-throne-from-Conan move. But the chances of a King return are exceedingly slim.

There’s been a bit too much gloating online about the show’s demise. But Piers himself took it in stride, tweeting: “Humbling to bring such happiness to so many people today. Coming 3rd, as I've always said, is not a trophy. #MorganOut #CNN

Baldwin vs. MSNBC

Alec Baldwin really unloads on the network where he briefly had a weekly show. But as you read the as-told-to piece in New York magazine, it’s worth keeping in mind that the actor got fired—after an incident in which he shouted at a photographer and was said, though he denies it, to have used an anti-gay slur—so there’s a little bit of sour grapes here.

“I like Lawrence O’Donnell, but he’s too smart to be doing that show. Rachel Maddow is Rachel Maddow, the ultimate wonk/dweeb who got a show, polished it, made it her own. She’s talented. The problem with everybody on MSNBC is none of them are funny, although that doesn’t prevent them from trying to be…

“Phil Griffin is the head of MSNBC, and when I saw that Griffin didn’t have a single piece of paper on his desk, meeting after meeting after meeting, that should have been my first indication there was going to be a problem. Phil is a veteran programmer who knows well the corridors and chambers of television programming—and couldn’t give a flying [blank] about content… 

“Once they fired me, a former MSNBC employee I knew emailed me. He said, ‘You watch now, Phil is going to start leaking left and right to bury you.’ When I left, ‘Page Six’ was flooded with lies about me. Another told me, regarding [an earlier] ‘toxic little queen’ comment, that Rachel Maddow was the prime mover in my firing, as she was aghast that I had been hired and viewed me as equivalent to Mel Gibson. Another source told me, ‘You know who’s going to get you fired, don’t you? Rachel. Phil will do whatever Rachel tells him to do.’ I think Rachel Maddow is quite good at what she does. I also think she’s a phony who doesn’t have the same passion for the truth off-camera that she seems to have on the air.”

Maddow has denied playing any role, and from what I know, while she’s certainly an important voice, Griffin runs the network and Rachel doesn’t meddle in management. 

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.