Piers Morgan, CNN’s imported British tabloid reporter turned Larry King replacement, invited trans author and activist Janet Mock on his show to promote her new memoir, “Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More.” As I watched the interview (because of Mock and not Morgan, who makes my skin crawl), I was struck by how far such interviews have come since David Susskind would invite transgendered individuals on his PBS show—this was classy, remember—and essentially hold them out as freaks. Morgan was respectful and supportive, though the sensationalist aspect was still there but muted: the text under Mock during her interview read “BORN A BOY,” and “was a boy until age 18,” which are, though accurately describing how most CNN viewers would understand Mock’s journey, over-simplified and counter to how Mock describes herself.
Mock seemed happy, Morgan seemed gracious. Then Mock went on Twitter and Buzzfeed to pronounce Morgan a clueless, ignorant, biased jerk. He was, shockingly, “trying to do infotainment” Mock said. Morgan’s show is the epitome of infotainment, and everybody knows it. She criticized him for “sensationalizing” transgender people while neglecting a substantive discussion about her book. The sales of Mock’s memoir depend on its sensational aspects, again, as she and her publisher well know. Mock accused Morgan of asking the same kinds of embarrassing questions about body parts and boy friends that non-trans people are inevitably curious about. Well, of course he did…because that’s what his audience is curious about.
None of this was communicated to Morgan either before, during, or after the interview. Morgan, who is no Sam Rubin, was incensed, and struck back via Twitter, since that is the forum where Mock chose to publicly attack him. In various tweets and exchanges he called Mock cowardly, “churlish,” and shameful, and criticized her allies as well, as she successfully brought down the progressive hoards on Morgan’s head. The same week, he invited her back to on the show along with a panel so he could defend himself while assailing her conduct. You can read the transcript of that show here.
What’s going on here?
I yield to no one in my disregard for Piers Morgan. It takes a lot for me to miss Larry King. However, in this instance and the knee-jerk defenders of Mock to the contrary, Morgan was unfairly ambushed, and his feelings that he was betrayed, mistreated and exploited are wholly justified. He obviously intended to be respectful to Mock, and more important, to help her sell her book. Piers Morgan is nothing if not determined to be perceived as a virtuous, accepting, uncritical worshiper of all tenets of progressive cant, from the unwavering brilliance of Barack Obama, the virtues of Obamacare, and abortion for any reason and at all times, to banning handguns, and enshrining homosexuality with baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet. He oozed good will and beneficence during his interview with Mock, whose status as transgender made her an untouchable in his eyes, immune from criticism or the kind of arch criticism a less favored guest could expect. He does not, however, completely understand Janet Mock or people like Mock, and that is fine, That is what such interviews are for; that is what her book is for. If his questions revealed ignorance or what the trans community would regard as insensitivity, she was in the studio, on camera, to rectify the situation.
From Morgan’s follow-up segment, after the Twitter war:
MORGAN: Well, explain to me. Explain to me what I did wrong. What did I do wrong?
MOCK: You called — so before commercial break, we had a lovely conversation and then all of a sudden you said, who was formerly a man. I was a baby, I was assigned male gender because of the parents of my genitals. As I grew up, I discovered my girlhood, I discovered my womanhood and I proclaimed and define for myself as Audre Lorde said. If we do not define ourselves …
MORGAN: Why didn’t you correct me at the time? Why you didn’t correct me?
MOCK: I did not because I was scared.
MORGAN: Did you feel that strongly?
MOCK: I did not because …
MORGAN: Scared of what?
MOCK: … I was fair and I want it to be a cordial I guess …
MORGAN: Scared of what?
MOCK: … and I think that that was probably incorrect of me. I wanted to be kind. I wanted to be generous because I was appreciative of having two segments on a mainstream show. It was my first major appearance as a young trans-woman who wrote her first book.
Probably incorrect? It was Mock who failed her obligation as an interview subject with a story to tell, speaking to a well-intentioned, white, heterosexual male who neither understood, could understand or had any reason to understand the nuances of what is still a mystery to the vast majority of the public: what does it mean to be “trans”? Because she was unprepared for the requirements of a live interview on a national stage, she resorted to attacking her host, post-interview, in public via Twitter, embarrassing him and impugning his professionalism when it was up to her, “scared” or not, to speak up and do her job while the interview was in progress
Mock also successfully played her minority victim card, so progressive bloggers and journalists tore Morgan to tiny pieces. She blew her dog whistle loud and clear. Morgan was attacked for his interview, and then for defending himself. The truth is, her attack was cowardly, by definition: she waited until after the interview because she was “scared” to be direct, fair, and responsible. She was indeed “churlish,” and her conduct was shameful as well.
Ah, but once unfairly attacked by an anointed minority, you cannot win. Morgan, in one tweet, told his trans critics to “pipe down”-–a reasonable request, since Mock had been leading them in a completely unjustified hate-fest against a sympathetic ally who had only sought to give her a platform. Here’s the jaw-dropping reaction of Equality Matters:
“The act of silencing women by calling them “hysterical” long predates the fight for LGBT equality. But it’s especially damaging when used to marginalize transgender people – a community that has long been pathologized and treated as mentally ill and unstable. In his effort to silence his critics, Morgan played into some of the very same tropes that have been used to justify discriminating against trans women for decades. “
He was responding to over-heated tweets demanding that he issue an apology. I’m not sure “hysterical” was the right word, but excessive would work, as would unreasonable. This is the classic tactic of rigging the rules of discourse: “We can call you anything we like, but if you respond in kind, you are marginalizing and oppressing us like your kind always has, you big, bigoted bully!“
Here, then, are the ethics verdicts on the episode:
- Good for Piers Morgan for standing up for himself and not submitting to a minority media mugging that he did not deserve. Sam Rubin take notice.
- The assumption of special interest groups, activists and minorities that they are entitled to kid gloves treatment in interviews is an example of asserting a special privilege that doesn’t exist, and shouldn’t exist. Morgan is not obligated to please interview subjects, or focus solely on what they would prefer to have him focus upon. Morgan’s obligation is to be fair, polite, and to give his viewing audience what, in his best assessment, they want to see and hear.
- If interview subjects feel that they are being misrepresented or abused, it is their obligation to speak up and say so, during the interview.
- Going on social media and attacking the interviewer in public, as Mock did to Morgan, is wrong—cowardly, unfair, and a clear Golden Rule violation.
- If guests like Mock want to be regarded by interviewers as walking, talking, PR bombs and “gotcha!” traps, then they should keep behaving like this. Hosts would be completely within ethical bounds to decide that they cannot be trusted and should no longer be booked, as Mock’s treatment of Morgan was a blatant breach of trust. After this episode, if she were my guest, my first question to her would be this: “If I make an erroneous statement, Janet, or say something inadvertently that upsets you, are you going to be fair and forthright and tell me now, or will you smile, say nothing, and then attack me on social media behind my back? If it’s the latter, we can end the interview immediately.”
- Mock owes Morgan an apology, and Morgan owes Mock nothing.
- I feel guilty for enjoying seeing Piers Morgan being mistreated by one of the groups that he so fervently wants to suck up to, as he is the true victim here.