Fighting Words

03.31.12

Piers Morgan Vs. Touré: How the CNN Host Blew It

Piers Morgan's rant on Friday against African-American writer and commentator Touré made the CNN host look tone deaf. Allison Samuels on how the network lost the war of public opinion.

On Friday night, in lieu of an invitation to see The Hunger Games, I chose to stay home and watch a much more entertaining event: the CNN news cycle. In a rather unfortunate spectacle, the network’s oft-combative host Piers Morgan attempted to take to task African-American journalist Touré for some critical remarks the writer, author, and social commentator expressed about Morgan via his Twitter account earlier in the week. It seems that Touré was none too pleased that Morgan chose to interview Robert Zimmerman Jr., the brother of George Zimmerman, the man accused of killing the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, because, according to Touré, he allowed the sibling to “spout unchallenged lies further poisoning a tense moment in history. Be Professional,” Touré chastised.

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Fighting words indeed, resulting in an intense, no-holds-barred Twitter war began between the two. Morgan offered a rather curious and personal response to Touré, tweeting: “Oh Touré, you’re such a tedious little twerp,” while also mocking the writer’s 57,000 followers. Mark my words: Twitter is destined to doom us all one day—just ask Spike Lee.

As childish as those one-liners were from Morgan, someone who you would assume would have developed a much thicker skin after years as a journalist here and abroad, the onetime Rupert Murdoch employee decided to really lay down the gauntlet by challenging Touré, a regular MSNBC contributor, to a verbal duel on air. After much back and forth on the where and the when, the exchange was set for Friday night, and it was without a doubt one of the most painful moments I’ve watched on primetime TV in a good while. In true Touré style, the take-no-prisoners commentator went straight for the jugular and attacked Morgan face to face for not questioning Zimmerman about his comments regarding important moments of the night Trayvon Martin died. Of course, Morgan was having none of it and quickly became defensive, chiding Touré for MSNBC’s attempt to get Zimmerman Jr. on their network as well, and for the network’s running the interview in question all day without criticism. What either one of those points had to do with Touré’s opinion expressed on his personal Twitter account is beyond my basic understanding.

But what was really disturbing about the more-than-20-minute showdown was the relative ease Morgan took in dismissing the African-American writer’s long and well-documented journalism background. Yes, Touré suggested that Morgan be professional in his initial tweet, but Morgan crossed the line by insinuating that Touré wasn’t a real journalist at all and by offering him tips on how real journalists do their jobs. That displayed a level of arrogance by Morgan that was completely uncalled for.

Those quips seemed to be all Morgan had in response to Touré’s suggestion that he didn’t fully appreciate the historical situation at hand. The writer even painfully added that after only being in the United States for seven years, Morgan could have no clue as to how deep the black-white divide actually is in this country. A fair point on many levels. The trials of blacks in Europe are based on a different set of circumstances, though the attitudes toward race and history’s consequences may be the same. African-Americans are the only group of once-enslaved people who continued to live in the area where their ancestors were held in shackles.

That creates a unique and tense dynamic for this country that is too often dismissed and misunderstood. But even more to the point, if Touré were not a serious journalist, why have him on the show in the first place? Why be so offended by a nonjournalist’s criticism when Twitter is full of such negative critiques aimed daily at the work of everyone from Don Cheadle to Lady Gaga. Jamal1 and Ray Ray23# had the same thoughts as Touré, so why not have them on for a heartfelt chat? Or better yet, debate my 78-year-old Aunt Josephine in Macon, Ga., who was also in complete agreement with Touré but just didn’t have a Twitter account to express it. (I’m setting her up with one next week.) How Aunt Josephine would relish the chance to put on her signature red lipstick and red “Sunday go-to-meeting hat” to go a round or two with Morgan on air. That would surely cement her star status as the toast of the Macon County church missionary club for years to come.

It was without a doubt one of the most painful moments I’ve watched on primetime TV in a good while.

My advice to Morgan the next time he reads a critique of his work on Twitter from Touré, Ray Ray, or good ole’ Aunt Josephine is “man up” and keep it moving. We live in a world where anyone can say whatever they please to anyone they please on the Internet and it isn’t always warm, friendly, or nice. Friday was a low moment for journalism and an even lower moment for Morgan. The only thing it may have accomplished was affording Touré a live audition for his own network show in the near future.

What it didn’t achieve was aiding this country in getting closer to an answer as to why a young teenage boy with Skittles and iced tea had to lose his life to someone with a gun. Isn’t that the real story anyway?