Morgan Squanders the Brit Bonus

Dave Weigel has a fascinating take today on the cultural politics of the Piers Morgan fiasco at CNN:

[W]ho was a Piers Morgan fan? Have you ever met one? No, reaction to CNN’s scheduling news ran the gamut from suppressed glee to running-naked-through-the-streets glee, from gun lovers declaring victory over the “Brit” to nonpartisan journalists reminiscing about Morgan’s finest ethical lapses….

But the critics couldn’t kill that show. Viewers killed it. The live broadcast of Morgan’s show drew around half the viewers that MSNBC did, and a fifth as many as Fox News. Morgan welcomed Fox’s Megyn Kelly to 9 p.m. by telling her (on Twitter) to “bring it on.” She did….

Morgan was the beneficiary of a curious American habit. We assign 20 extra IQ points to anyone who speaks with a British accent, redistributing them from the people who speak with Southern accents. This was what led people, like Alec Baldwin, to assume that Martin Bashir “might help get MSNBC to a higher place,” and why every B-movie producer has assumed he could elevate the material by casting Malcolm McDowell or Ben Kingsley. That way lies madness—that way lies Thunderbirds and Piers Morgan Live.

Now as someone who definitely speaks with a Southern accent, I admit that on occasion I have used the prejudice of which Dave speaks to pick the pockets (figuratively speaking) of the dumber sorts of Yankees who never knew why their wallets were suddenly lighter. (When I was new to Washington, my mentor trained me to do this, calling it the “Georgia Boy Routine”).

But I never quite realized that the presumption of intelligence and refinement that those speaking with a British accent were given had its own usages. I should have: I had a high school debate partner who was originally from the UK (his father was an engineer at Lockheed Georgia). In normal conversation had no accent at all, but when at a podium he sounded like a character right out of Jeeves and Wooster. It was very effective with debate judges, and with Cobb County girls, too.

So presumably the CNN brass thought Morgan would be ratings gold. It seems the haughty scourge of America’s Got Talent couldn’t pull it off when he had to talk about something other than the aesthetic shortcomings of sword-swallowers.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.