What a great night in the new world of prime-time counter-programming.
I am old enough to remember when counter-programming meant one network putting a drama pitched to men on the air in the same time period that another network was airing a hit drama favored by women. And I thought that was bad.
But now in the new and downsized prime-time cable world of celebrity kiss-up interviews and ideological head banging, it means Piers Morgan debuting on CNN with one of the most unctuous, show-biz-gooey interviews this side of Ryan Seacrest, while Sean Hannity and Fox News give free rein to Ms. Blood Libel herself, Sarah Palin, Fox News analyst, animal-killing reality TV star and soon-to-be presidential candidate. Take our channels and our credibility, please.
I will hold off rendering a definitive judgment on Morgan's new show in the old Larry King Live time slot. I do so not because it is unfair to make a call after only one show. I used to believe that until I saw Parker-Spitzer, and I was more than willing to declare it D.O.A., seconds after its premiere. Read it here.
The only thing I was wrong about with Parker-Spitzer is that I did not think CNN would launch Morgan's show with this ratings wreck as its lead-in. But I'm not sure keeping Parker-Spitzer on at this point is as much a strategy as it is a management that can't get either party to quit and doesn't have any good ideas on how how to bury its mess.
But let's not speak ill of the dead. Moving on to cable TV's new king of Hollywood Phony, Piers Morgan.
I will hold off on making a formal call until I have seen him do a real, live interview off a big breaking news story with nothing but his brains, nerve and any journalistic instincts he might have guiding him. I am hoping to see that some night, and if he is good, I will sing his praises.
But given the moves CNN has been making the last four months, maybe the channel is out of the breaking news business, and Morgan is not going to be used that way. Maybe he is going to spend his time at CNN interviewing the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Rod Stewart and Howard Stern -- because that is just what this celebrity-saturated, Hollywood-hyped culture of ours needs more of, isn't it?
What we had with Orpah Winfrey in Monday night's premiere was as much a shameless show-biz, back-scratching exercise as I have seen, well, since the last installment of Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood. That's the league this so-called interview belonged in.
CNN has been breaking the bank to promote this great "get" of Oprah for opening night. Please. Oprah is no kind of "get" for anybody right now. She has been everywhere for the last month promoting her OWN network. My God, she was even on "The Early Show" on CBS doing an interview.
Morgan set the unctuous meter soaring right off the bat with, "When you wake up in the morning and say, 'Bloody hell, I'm Oprah Winfrey...."
"Well, I don't say bloody hell...." she replied with a friendly chuckle. And Winfrey was off and running with OWN and how she has a "surreal" moment and "started to cry" thinking about the "journey" that brought her to this network. My watch could be wrong, but I clocked 21 seconds before she made the first mention of OWN and the hype hit overdrive with talk of "redemption."
By the way, and call me picky, but while both Morgan and Winfrey kept calling OWN a network, it isn't, despite the title. It's a cable channel. A network is what CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC have -- a broadcaster who has a collection of stations (usually more than 200) bound to it to carry its programming by contract. OWN does not have 200 stations around the country. It's a cable channel like CNN, Spike, the Food Network, TLC or Playboy. The difference is kind of huge.
But the show-biz footsie Morgan and Winfrey were playing really was too much.
"You are the American queen," Morgan told Winfrey, saying he considers her and the Queen of England in a realm unto themselves.
"Everything you touch is a hit -- will you please touch me?" he begged at another point.
Cloying and needy barely start to scratch the surface of Morgan's interview style Monday night.
In return for all of Morgan's pathetic fawning, CNN got those sound bites of Winfrey saying to him, "Oooh, you're good." And CNN has been running them so relentlessly, I felt like I had already seen this canned interview 50 times before it actually aired Monday night.
But enough of Morgan. What he is to the smarmy show biz interview, so is Sean Hannity to the political kiss-up conversation. I have written before about how obsequious Hannity gets with Palin, and all but genuflects before her image, which was beamed into the Fox News Manhattan studios from Alaska where Fox News built a studio for her.
Hannity doesn't really do interviews with her. He plays defense attorney asking about "criticisms" made of her, and then setting her up with graphics and loaded questions so she can attempt to refute the charges made by hateful "left-leaning" people against her. He questions nothing, no matter how contradictory or screwy her answers might be.
Here is her answer when he asked her about allegations that she took down the image of crosshairs targeting the district of U.S. Rep Gabrielle Giffords after the congresswoman was shot. The image was on the website of her PAC.
"You know, I believe that someone in the PAC -- in fact, the contract graphic artist -- did take it down," she began.
My God, I thought, almost a straight answer from Palin, even if she was distancing herself with the "contract graphic artist" language. But silly me, she was only beginning.
"And I have no problem with it being taken down," she continued. "I don't think it was inappropriate [that it was taken down] if it was going to cause much heartburn or even more controversy.... Knowing that it had nothing to do with an apolitical or perhaps even left-leaning criminal killing these innocents....I didn't have a problem with it being taken down, if in fact it has been taken down."
First of all, too much pastrami causes heartburn; the imagery of assassination is linked to far darker consequences, Governor. There was a time after the assassination of President Kennedy when Hollywood self-censored any images of crosshairs for that very reason. But you would have to know something about history to know that.
Now a responsible interviewer might have asked her about the seeming contradiction between "someone did take it down" and "if in fact it has been taken down." He might also point out that folks are not interested in whether she had a "problem" with it being taken, they want to know why she or members of her team DID take it down. Was it because they were ashamed of it after the shooting -- because they knew there was something provocative and dangerous about it?
Instead, Hannity showed an old bulls-eye map that the Democrats once had up and then offered a statement about how Bill Clinton had a "war room" and how "war analogy is very common in politics." All of it was preamble to asking, "So, why do you think the left singled you out, Governor?"
Again, this isn't journalistic interviewing, it is what a defense attorney would do while questioning his client in an effort to refute charges against her.
I am not going to deal with what she said about "blood libel." I wrote a book published by Brandeis University Press dealing with Jewish imagery and depictions of Jewish identity on television, and I really do think my head will explode right now if I think too hard about someone like Palin recklessly using language that is so steeped in conflict, pained history and culture. But again, she would have to know something about history to know that.
From the show-biz hustle of Morgan and Winfrey to the ideological tango of Hannity to Palin, this is what now passes for cultural and political discourse in our nation. Do you wonder why we are in the kind of pain and trouble we are in?
I'm also old enough to remember all the stories I wrote in the 1980s about the great promise of cable for democracy and a more enlightened electorate.
It's enough to almost give me heartburn, Governor.