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 sitdown on Monday's debut of CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight.
"This (career) isn't about me having houses and shoes …it's about how I can be used for something greater than myself," said Winfrey, 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. "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 similar moments, reminding an often obsequious Morgan just who really was in control.
It was a crucial moment for the 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 stepped down:
Can the guy who 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 sitdown with Winfrey on Monday, is a decided maybe. Because 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.
Morgan, needing Winfrey's goodwill and stamp of approval, gave in, slipping in significant questions, almost as an aside.
A joke about the checks she writes 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 and the five or six people she says she trusts most in the world.
Morgan saved his haymaker for the final minutes, telling her the 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 queen of all media offered one word: "surprising."
The last unanswered question from Monday: Will that be enough to save CNN's bacon in prime time?