Politics & Policy

How to Be a Popular Pundit

Piers Morgan in 2018 (Paul Childs/Reuters)
They’re pithy, pointed, and — at times — spectacularly wrong.

When Ben Shapiro appeared on Piers Morgan’s CNN talk show in 2013, he accused his host of being a “bully” — the sort that demonizes political opponents of gun control by “standing on the graves of [murdered] children.” Morgan, an Englishman, responded, “How dare you.” Then again, “How dare you.” It was a fine display of political theater. The clip went viral, the young Shapiro shot to fame, and — in the eyes of their respective followings — the two men were henceforth sworn enemies.

Until last Sunday, that is — when Morgan appeared on a special edition of The Ben Shapiro Show to discuss everything from our hyperpartisan media culture to the “massive problem” with modern liberals — many of whom, Morgan says, have become “utterly [and] pathetically illiberal.” Morgan is still a liberal. Shapiro is still a conservative. And yet the two have — unexpectedly — found common ground. Common ground, they say, in their shared appreciation for a rigorous public discourse, the “corner stone of democracy.” But more potent — if also a little cynical — is their shared understanding of what audiences actually enjoy listening to.

As a columnist and celebrity personality in Britain, Morgan holds many opinions that put him at odds with the ruling media class. These opinions include his open support for Donald Trump, whom he knows personally from his days on the American Apprentice, as well as his criticisms of Meghan Markle, whom he — again via firsthand experience — considers to be a self-serving phony. Likewise, Morgan has used his TV platform on Good Morning Britain to promote debates about the new transgender orthodoxy.

“What’s the point in calling yourself a liberal if you don’t allow anyone else to have a different view?” he said, adding that “populism is rising because liberals have become unbearable.” Trump knows this, Morgan says, and has learned to take advantage.

He [Trump] told me that . . . if he doesn’t like what he’s seeing [on the TV], he just . . . sends a tweet and watches it all change in real time. That is power, folks. He changes the news agenda with his own hand. With his thumb. BOOM.

What Trump’s critics seem to forget is that the president doesn’t have “an ideological bone in his body.” The same can be said of Morgan, whose background is in English tabloid journalism, where he became the youngest editor of Rupert Murdoch’s News of World at the age of 28. Since then, Morgan has seen the industry change dramatically. Because of the Internet, everyone can be a journalist. Worse, everyone can be the story too. “The world of celebrity became much bigger,” he said. “You can be famous for anything. You can kill someone and be famous. Particularly in America where there is such a huge media.”

Morgan considers the blurring between media and celebrity — and the related problem of a lack of transparency — to be a problem. If you have bias, he says — then you really ought to declare it. That people don’t is a new development. When Morgan worked in America as a political-show host for CNN less than ten years ago, objectivity and balance were “rigorously enforced.” But in the age of Trump, no longer. It’s not just TV networks that are suffering from this. For instance, the New York Times recently ran a factual headline “Trump Urges Unity Against Racism” — the president’s hypocrisy was, incidentally, covered in the body of the article — which prompted so much outrage for being generous to Trump that the Times editors changed it.

The problem of partisanship has “been massively exacerbated by social media,” says Morgan. “It feels like we’ve gone back 2,000 years and we’re back to tribes . . . You’re either in this tribe or the other.” Shapiro agrees, though adds that this problem, in fact, predates the Trump era. The same thing is happening in Britain with regard to Brexit. Morgan’s approach to Brexit is refreshingly pragmatic. Though he voted to Remain in 2016, he thinks that parliament’s attempts to thwart Brexit is undemocratic. And so, if there were another referendum, he’d vote to Leave as a matter of principle.

Having worked in the media on both sides of the Atlantic, Morgan also had some interesting insights about the differences in U.K. and U.S. media. He maintains that the BBC is — by and large — an impartial broadcaster. Shapiro seemed skeptical of this, though he didn’t belabor the point — perhaps because of his embarrassment earlier this year when he had a run in with the BBC’s most formidable interviewer, Andrew Neil.

Neil has a reputation for cross-examining all of his interviewees (regardless of their politics) in the manner of a criminal prosecutor. But Shapiro didn’t know this because he had “never heard” of Neil. Before cutting the interview short, Shapiro accused his interviewer of bias: “Why don’t you just say that you’re on the left?” Neil responded, “Mr. Shapiro if you only knew how ridiculous that statement is you wouldn’t have said it.” Indeed, Neil is frequently accused in the U.K. of right-wing bias. (He is chairman of Britain’s right-of-center weekly, The Spectator, and frequently shares their articles from his personal Twitter account.) Neil also said:

I know that broadcasting in America is now so polarized that on one program you only have the left and on the other you just have the right. My job is to question those who have strong views and to put an alternative to them.

To his credit, Shapiro later admitted that he’d been in the wrong and had mistaken Neil’s aggression for partisanship. But also, Shapiro wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested BBC often falls short of its own standards of impartiality. In his book The Noble Liar: How and Why the BBC Distorts the News to Promote a Liberal Agenda, a former BBC reporter and executive who spent 25 years working for the Corporation makes a compelling argument that the BBC is increasingly left-leaning, from its coverage of Brexit to social issues. One could argue that this is more dangerous than the blatant bias of the American media.

After listening to them exchange ideas, it’s clear why pundits like Shapiro and Morgan go viral. They’re pithy, pointed, and — at times — spectacularly wrong. But, aside from all that, they’re great fun to listen to. At a time of suffocating conformity, it’s no wonder that audiences are flocking to them.

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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