Piers Morgan hands the interview controls to Oprah Winfrey for his CNN debut
They say you best judge an interview not by the questions asked, but the answers given.
Consider, then, this quote from talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, delivered during her hourlong sit down on tonight's debut of CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight: “I am very clear; my life and my purpose is greater than myself,” said Winfrey, minutes after admitting she’s given more than $300-million to charity and moments before discussing how Martin Luther King Jr. might feel about a black woman creating her own cable TV network 40 years after his passing.
“This isn’t about me having houses and shoes…it’s about how I can be used for something greater than myself,” she added. “That is why Negro me, a former colored girl from Mississippi has a network. Because I know what to do with it.”
Unfortunately, that media savvy also led to an hourlong interview where Winfrey allowed few other moments like that to occur, reminding an often obsequious Morgan just who really was in control.
It was a crucial moment for Morgan, a British tabloid editor-turned-reality TV star who has mostly faced one question since CNN bet its prime time fortunes on hiring him to anchor their 9 p.m. hour after Larry King finally stepped down:
Can the guy who won Celebrity Apprentice and insults mediocre performers on America’s Got Talent actually hold his own with the biggest celebrity interview CNN can muster?
The answer, judging by his sit down with Winfrey Monday, is a decided maybe. Because, even as Morgan charmed Winfrey with tales of getting her cooperation by “seducing” her best friend Gayle King by email, she was refusing to show the kind of emotion that made her sit-down with Barbara Walters last year such a sensation.
Also, Winfrey insisted not only on controlling the interview, but making sure Morgan knew she was controlling the interview – telling him “I know where you’re going with that question” or slyly noting ”you’re really good,” while refusing to answer others.
Filming in what looked like a plant-filled hotel conference room in Los Angeles, the interview wasn't on Morgan's home turf -- a new, sleek HD-ready set which will be featured in Tuesday's interview with shock jock Howard Stern. Seemingly aware the queen of all media had him outclassed, Morgan gave in, alternating between buttering her up with compliments and charming her with humor so he could slip in significant questions, almost as an aside.
A joke about the checks she writes – Winfrey says she signs every one above $100,000 that her HARPO Productions company issues and “there are hundreds of them” – led Morgan to ask offhandedly “What’s the worst check you ever wrote to the IRS?”
That brought gales of laughter from a media queen who knew that he knew she was too smart to touch that one. Ditto with questions on the specific names of the three people she says have broken her heart – Winfrey feared they would call her, Morgan said he wanted to call them – and the five or six people she says she trusts most in the world.
Morgan saved his haymaker for the final minutes, telling her tonight’s interview would air on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and asking how she felt about the civil rights leader she often says inspired her as a child.
“He would have been so proud,” Winfrey said, eyes shining with water, before snapping back to the moment. Morgan also noted that, between her and President Barack Obama, arguably the two most powerful people in America are black – not a bad culmination of his legacy.
Perhaps that’s why, when Morgan asked how he did, the often-interviewed queen of all media offered one word: “surprising.”
The last question left unanswered from Monday: Will that be enough to save CNN’s bacon in prime time? Too early to tell – though it can’t hurt to get a sideways attaboy from the most powerful woman in media.