After the massacre in Newtown, Conn., we were promised a serious, reasoned, and long-overdue debate about gun control. Instead, we got Piers Morgan, Wayne LaPierre, Beyoncé, and Matt Drudge. Add to this circus of stupidity a debate among nominally serious people about the ethical and legal merits of deporting Morgan back to Britain for advocating the restriction of certain types of weapons. So yes, America is officially incapable of having smart conversations about controversial topics.
Case in point: Earlier this week, screaming from the top of the Drudge Report in bold, red type, was this headline “WHITE HOUSE THREATENS ‘EXECUTIVE ORDERS’ ON GUNS.” It was illustrated, with a subtlety that only Matt Drudge is capable of, with photographs of genocidal Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. Could America’s Kristallnacht, its Katyn Forest, be far behind?
Every so often, unnoticed by the casual reader of the Drudge Report, the site offered scattered links to Infowars.com or Prisonplanet.com, two websites run by sweating lunatic Alex Jones, a Texas-based radio host who has never heard a conspiracy theory that didn’t sound perfectly plausible. When Jones isn’t extracting clues to who’s really responsible for the Newtown killings from Batman films (seriously), or researching the mind-controlling “chemtrails” left by commercial airliners, when he isn’t talking to Charlie Sheen about 9/11 truth, he’s debating CNN bore Piers Morgan about the “New World Order” (If you doubt that Jones is indistinguishable from an escaped mental patient, I urge you to watch this 2009 video of him having what one could generously call an on-air breakdown.)
During this latest roiling—and thoroughly unsatisfying—“national debate” on gun control, it has become increasingly rare to encounter serious discourse, especially on the cable-news networks. To those who believe the Obama administration is, like Nazis and Stalinists before it, coming to requisition America’s guns, there isn’t time for nuance (I wrote about the silly Nazi comparison here). And for those mystified by gun culture, the Second Amendment is outdated and removed from its historical context, and those millions of American gun owners and NRA Lifetime Members are separated from people like Jones by a matter of degrees.
Alex Jones is a representative Second Amendment enthusiast in the same way that Leonid Brezhnev is an archetypal progressive. Piers Morgan, of course, understands this. But rather than promoting reasoned debate, he lunges toward the unreasonable in an attempt to influence the outcome. As he conceded on Twitter, “the more we hear from [Jones], the better chance proper U.S. gun control legislation will be passed.” In other words, if the viewing public can be persuaded that those who oppose tighter restrictions of firearms are not unlike Jones, the Morgan argument is an easier sell. He’s putting his finger on the scale, but whatever it takes to prevent future school shootings.
The Jones interview moved the gun debate not one inch; it merely provided a large platform for a paranoid extremist—and car-crash television for the rest of us. But Morgan, whose poorly rated show has long been on life support, believed the segment a rousing success, retweeting a journalist who noted that the Jones interview received 4 million Youtube views in less than 48 hours. Morgan, whose American journalism career was listless and limping, saw his fortunes turn when his show became a brash, single-issue clearinghouse for critics of America’s gun laws. After years of offering a third way between the ideologues of Fox and MSNBC, at least one host at CNN has determined that it pays to be more, not less, like the cable-news competition.
And yes, sober analysis, an attempt to understand why 47 percent of American adults told Gallup that they have a gun “in their home or elsewhere on their property,” is ratings poison. So who do we find on Piers Morgan Tonight, guiding us through the thicket of the Second Amendment, District of Columbia v. Heller, and the definitional difference between a military-style assault weapon and a semi-automatic rifle? Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who spends his free time attempting to prove President Obama was born in Kenya; former professional wrestler, Minnesota ex-governor, and noted conspiracy nut Jesse Ventura, who believes President George W. Bush was behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; a random gun-store owner from Texas (outfitted in an enormous sombrero), who believes all schoolteachers should be armed; washed-up musician Ted Nugent, who can be relied on to say something outrageous on a producer’s cue. And so on. These are the intellectual equivalents of Mike Tyson’s postprison boxing matches; a chump fight, designed to make the former champ look good.
None of this should be surprising, coming as it does from a disgraced former tabloid editor and ex-talent-show judge. Indeed, a quick look at Morgan’s oeuvre, which includes stints at News of the World, which was shuttered during the phone-hacking scandal, and the Daily Mirror, from which he was fired for publishing fake photos of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners, and one understands that Morgan is incapable of nuance. Take his description of supermodel Kate Moss, whom he dismissed as a “drunken, foul-mouthed, ill-mannered, paranoid Croydon girl with a cocaine- desecrated hooter and spots.” Her ex-boyfriend Pete Doherty, former guitar player in the Libertines, a seminal British postpunk band, is a “filthy, talentless junkie who can’t sing.” They are funny lines, for sure, but one needn’t rush to YouTube to discover that Morgan is even more contemptuous of Second Amendment enthusiasts.
This is not an argument about the wisdom of owning an AR-15 or the judiciousness of outlawing certain high-capacity clips, but of the silliness of the Drudge- and Morgan-style debate, which has abandoned reason for moral outrage. To disagree with Morgan is to argue in bad faith, to be opposed to common sense, to be an uncaring, unfeeling tool of the gun lobby. Former CNN host Larry King, who Morgan replaced in 2011, told the Huffington Post this week that the show was now “all about the host,” where “the guest becomes the prop to the host.”
The Leveson Report on phone hacking in the British tabloid industry noted that in 2003 Morgan sent an email to a police officer who had complained about a story in The Daily Mirror, shrugging that “fame and crime sends most of the usual rules out of the window.” Morgan is himself famous, and has now taken it upon himself to adjudicate the complicated issue of crime—the thorny issue of America’s gun culture—by having shouting matches with paranoiacs like Alex Jones and Jesse Ventura. And in the process, he has, as promised, tossed the rules of responsible journalism out the window.