Piers Morgan's Splashy CNN Debut

A week before his premiere as Larry King's successor, the new host is touting a tough Oprah interview and calling out Palin. He tells Jacob Bernstein about his plans for the show—and why CNN's low ratings keep him calm.

01.11.11 7:48 AM ET

If you are a man about to inherit the 9 p.m. time slot on a beleaguered cable news behemoth, it helps to have thick skin. Witness Piers Morgan. He hasn’t even had his debut yet on CNN, and already he’s heard every reason why he might not work as the replacement for Larry King: He’s British, and there hasn’t been a British host on prime time since the days of David Frost. His fame in the U.S. owes mainly to his placing first on a season of Celebrity Apprentice and hosting a singing competition called America’s Got Talent with Simon Cowell—neither of which earned him brownie points with the journalistic establishment. He can be mean, and television hosts need to be warm and fuzzy, like Ellen Degeneres, Jay Leno, and Rosie O’Donnell (in her Queen of Nice-days of yore). He’s lightweight, and his most famous interview, with former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, took place in front of an audience of hundreds on a set that looked like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Well, you know what he says to that? “Guilty as charged!”

“That was the idea,” Morgan tells The Daily Beast over breakfast Monday morning at the Midtown Manhattan hotel, where he’s now ensconced as he awaits his Jan. 17 debut. “I feel, and I’ve said this before, like all television is theater, whether it’s a talent competition or an interview show. It’s lights down, curtains open, and you have to work out how the play is going to unfold.”

So what if he recently did an investigative report on the downfall of Las Vegas that included a bit where he married Paris Hilton in a faux shotgun wedding? So what if, as editor of The Daily Mirror, he made numerous jokes about wanting to shag women like Princess Diana and Naomi Campbell?

“I want my show to be entertaining,” says Morgan, who is clad this morning in a simple pinstriped suit from Dolce and Gabbana. “The most pompous, humorless people in the world think it’s only news if people are dying. It’s not. News is many things, it comes in many guises. Some of it is disaster and tragedy, and some of it is incredibly inspiring and uplifting. Some of it is just good old fashioned entertainment.”

To that end, his first week on air will be filled with guests who can showcase everything from his political bona fides (Condoleezza Rice) to his love of pop culture and entertainment (George Clooney, Ricky Gervais, Howard Stern). And of course, he’s interviewed Oprah, who’s already called the hour she spent with Morgan one of the toughest interviews she’s had in 20 years.

“It’s easier to come from a position of apparent weakness in terms of ratings than it is to come from a place of unparalleled strength,” Morgan says.

We know this not from Oprah, but her latest interlocutor, who has been dining out on this version of their time together ever since they met late last week. “Oprah came out and said the next day that it was like afterwards she had to go have a long hot bath and two Anacin,” Morgan says with a big smile. “That’s the best promo I could ever think of for my show. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy it, but it was quite grueling for her. She felt like she had to be on her game, and as a result she gave me a great interview.” In fact, he thinks it might be the best of his career—or at least, one of the three best.

This is who Morgan is, a little cocky, but charming enough that he’s able to work it to his advantage. “He would do an interview and drape his arm around the star so that the picture became both about them and Piers Morgan,” says Kelvin MacKenzie, the veteran British tabloid editor who mentored Morgan in the early days of his career. “And he’s still doing it 25 years later. It’s a clever trick.”

Plus, Morgan has had enough ups and downs in his 45 years to rival Cher. “There’s a bounce-back quality to him,” says MacKenzie. When Morgan was only 1, his father died, a subject about which he has little to say. “An interviewer should feel free to ask anything they like, nothing should be off limits, but whether that person answers is entirely up to them,” Morgan says. “I don’t believe in this whole ‘touchy feely, kissy telly, let me tell you the most intimate details of my personal life’ thing. But I know lots of celebrities who deliberately use that kind of thing as an extension of their brand—it’s horses for courses. Most journalists I know feel very uncomfortable doing that, and I’m no different to them.”

As a teenager growing up in a household with three other siblings and parents who were scraping by running a country pub, Morgan was pulled out of his posh private school. “All my friends toddled off to big-fee-paying older schools and I went off to the local state around the corner,” he says. “It made me realize what the real world is like, where you’re not as privileged. Suddenly I was thrown to the wolves, and the wolves turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”

By his early 20s, he’d gone into journalism, writing a well-received gossip column for The Sun called Bizarre. At 28, Rupert Murdoch tapped him to edit the weekly tabloid News of the World, where he made a splash with big stories on the tawdry sex lives of Tory politicians and the ins and outs of Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ imploding marriage. Sinead O’Connor sent him hate mail, calling him a “gutter maggot” and telling him to “fuck off and die.” Others merely called their lawyers.

No matter. Two years later, Morgan bounced over to the higher-profile Daily Mirror, where he oversaw 9/11 coverage that won awards—and also nearly saw his career derailed over allegations of insider trading. (He published a column touting the stock of a computer company called Viglen one day after buying it. Morgan claimed he never saw the column until after he’d purchased shares in the company, and was acquitted after a four-year investigation.)

Then, in 2004, during the height of the Iraq War, the Mirror published photographs of British soldiers abusing Iraqis in scenes that were reminiscent of Abu Ghraib. The authenticity of the pictures came under fire, and Morgan was sacked. He doesn’t really think he did anything wrong. “The government said they were fake, but the government also said there were no weapons of mass destruction,” says Morgan, whose television career took off soon after with appearances on Britain’s Got Talent (with his friend Simon Cowell) and then Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice (which he won).

Trump, for his part, said he had no doubt Morgan would do well on CNN. “What got him to victory on The Apprentice,” Trump says, “is that he’s intellectually smart and he’s street smart, which is a rare combination. I think he’ll be really successful at CNN. And he’ll ask tough questions. ”

Celia Walden, a writer for The Telegraph whom Morgan married last June, says the show has already been good for their marriage. “We had our honeymoon and then he left me. Everyone says it’s really healthy,” she says. (Morgan has three children from a previous marriage and has been flying home for long weekends with them.)

One thing that’s keeping Morgan calm is that the ratings on CNN have been so awful, he doesn’t have to do much to get out of the basement. “If I was coming here trying to replace Bill O’Reilly, that would be an incredibly difficult thing to do,” he says. “He’s No. 1. It’s easier to come from a position of apparent weakness in terms of ratings than it is to come from a place of unparalleled strength.”

And just in case folks aren’t paying enough attention to him, well, he’s happy to throw some wood on the fire. Just this weekend, in the wake of the Arizona shooting, he lobbed some opprobrium toward Sarah Palin via his Twitter account. In an apparent reference to the former Alaska governor’s map on her website with crosshairs over 20 Democratic targets, he said, “It’s not a ‘liberal’ view to think politicians should desist from using inflammatory rhetoric and imagery. It’s just common sense.” (Palin did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

Asked for clarification on what he meant, Morgan says, “I was merely stating the bleeding obvious when it was highlighted that Sarah Palin had said the thing about crosshairs and reloading. Politicians on the left or right have to be extremely careful about the use of violent rhetoric, not because you and I are going to read it and go out and shoot people, but because there are many people who are mentally unstable who just might be incited to do that…It’s inherently dangerous.

“Did Sarah Palin have anything to do with the shooting? Probably not. Is there any sense this guy was a Sarah Palin fan from anything we’ve read about him? No. But this bloke was mentally unstable, and no one can tell me that the increasingly hysterical, partisan nature of what we’re viewing on TV does not filter down to people who are unstable. It will. Politicians today have to be aware that their comments get watched and heard by everybody.”

Of course, at this point, so does Piers Morgan.

Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.