The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Is that all there is? Piers Morgan gets Howard Stern to admit he watches porn

January 20, 2011 | 12:48 pm

Condi_rice Piers Morgan is doing what he's supposed to do--score ratings for CNN, which has seen itself sinking into near-oblivion in the cable news ratings universe. But I've been watching Morgan this week largely to see what kind of interviewing smarts he's developed after surviving years as a high-profile media icon in the British tabloid racket. After all, he was editing England's largest-selling newspaper, the News of the World, before he was 30, although he's suffered a number of dings to his reputation since then, most notably losing his job as editor of the Mirror in 2004 after publishing crudely faked photos of British soldiers torturing imprisoned Iraqis. 

He's had better luck as a TV personality, doing fluff like "America's Got Talent." But how is he faring on "Piers Morgan Tonight," doing hourlong interviews with the likes of Howard Stern, Oprah and Condoleezza Rice? One thing we've seen right away is that American media personages are savvy enough to know how to fend off almost any interviewer's advances, no matter how crafty. When Morgan tried to nudge Oprah into forbidden territory, hoping to lure her to talk about the tabloid reports of a lesbian relationship with one of her close friends, she firmly shut the door, telling him there was no way she was "going there."

When Morgan tried to get Rice to say that she would consider serving in some capacity in the Obama administration, which would've stirred some Web buzz, she fended him off, saying "I don't do hypotheticals, Piers." Nor did Morgan get anywhere trying to cajole Stern into admitting that, at 57, he couldn't possibly have such sleekly black hair. I guess if no one can get Paul McCartney to admit that his hair is colored, no one can get Stern to do it. He actually told Morgan, "I swear on a stack of Bibles that I don't color my hair," which was pretty funny in itself, since it's hard to imagine Stern being within 100 miles of a stack of Bibles.

Still, I'd have to give Morgan pretty high marks as an interviewer, especially in an era where doing a proper interview is something of a lost art. Most late-night hosts are awful, since they're largely using their guests as fodder for the host's own quips. Jon Stewart, who is a brilliant satirist, is a lousy interviewer, always interrupting his guests and offering up long-winded, hard-to-follow questions. Even Charlie Rose, who gets the best guests on TV, is a disappointment, lobbing softballs to people you're dying to see him fry on the grill. I was hoping that Christiane Amanpour would bring some fresh air to the Sunday morning bloviator circuit, but she has shown little aptitude for wresting any straight answers out of wily politicians and administration figures. The best interviewer remains Fox News' Chris Wallace, who is well-prepared, to the point and not afraid to politely call out a politico who's attempted to dodge a legitimate question.

Morgan's chat with Stern was tons of fun, but hardly a breakthrough, since most of Stern's best riffs were on subjects he's addressed a thousand times before, like his unhappy relationship with his father, his fondness for watching pornography and his loathing for Jay Leno, whom he dismissed as "not being fit to scrub David Letterman's feet." I figured that Morgan's sit-down with Rice Wednesday night would be a true test of his mettle. But it would be hard to say that he laid a glove on her, with the interview meandering from a host of lightweight queries about her cooking, her love of football and her workout regime and other personal areas ("Have you ever been intoxicated?") to a series of brow-furrowing questions about the Iraq war that did little but show how adept Rice is at dodging media bullets.

If the interview revealed anything, it was how polished Rice has become at avoiding saying anything remotely controversial. When Morgan asked her about Sarah Palin, Rice called her "an important and consequential figure in American politics," even though it seemed clear from her chilly delivery that she admired Palin about as much as does Hugo Chavez.

All in all, I'd say that while Morgan is a huge improvement over Larry King, he's got a ways to go to find his own cozy niche in the talk-show circus. If he wants to make news on his show, he's going to have to be more of a provocateur, finding ways to steer these polished media personages away from their predictable talking points. Morgan did have one bright shining moment at the end of his talk with Stern. When Howard tried to turn the tables, asking Morgan, "How big is your penis?," Morgan was quick to retort: "Bigger than yours." We know that when it comes to Howard Stern, that's not saying much, but it was a promising sign that perhaps Morgan possesses the kind of sassy style that could eventually turn his show into must-see TV.

--Patrick Goldstein  

Photo: Piers Morgan, left, interviewing Condoleezza Rice on CNN's "Piers Morgan Show." Credit: Lorenzo Bevilaqua / Associated Press/CNN

 

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