How Piers Morgan Became the Most Side-Eyed White Man in Black America Today
On April 23, Beyoncé unleashed her visual album Lemonade on the world, prompting waves of adoring feedback from fans and enough Internet think pieces to fill a library.
Piers Morgan, a 51-year-old white journalist from the United Kingdom, wrote one of the worst.
"I never like it when entertainers get all political," Morgan began his essay, which was published April 25 at the Daily Mail.
In eight short days, starting with that piece, Morgan became one of the most ridiculed people in media. His op-eds on black culture over that period have earned him the ire of readers across the country, and made him a punchline for critics, who lambast his uninformed opinions and tendency to share them without considering they might be unwelcome, or worse, just plain bad.
This is not an enviable position for a journalist to find himself in. Morgan's sometimes combative style has turned heads in the past, but never has the backlash approached the near-immediate derision he receives when sharing his thoughts on black culture today.
This is the story of how he got here — and why he needs to quit while he's behind.
Beyoncé and Lemonade
The Beyoncé op-ed was published two days after Lemonade took America by storm — two days of fans praising the work as an epic tribute to black womanhood, the struggles black women endure and the perseverance that's allowed them to triumph despite those struggles.
The visuals that accompanied the music, which aired exclusively on HBO, featured a who's who of black firepower, from Serena Williams and poet Warsan Shire to Lezley McSpadden, the mother of Ferguson resident Michael Brown, and Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin.
But Morgan perceived a distasteful racial provocation from an artist who, for his money, used to be far less political.
"I have to be honest, I preferred the old Beyoncé," Morgan wrote. "The less inflammatory, agitating one ... the one who didn't play the race card so deliberately and to my mind, unnecessarily. The one who wanted to be judged on her stupendous talent, not her skin color, and wanted us all to do the same."
Black Twitter put him through the ringer:
Critics who read the piece felt Morgan preferred a quieter and more obedient Beyoncé — one who avoided challenging a racially mixed audience with uncomfortable topics like racial inequality and anti-black police violence.
It was a brutal public dragging, but less than a week later, Morgan proved he wasn't done talking yet.
On May 2, the Brit weighed in on yet another racial controversy. Late night TV host and comedian Larry Wilmore, who is black, closed his monologue at Saturday's White House Correspondents' Dinner with a racialized affirmation of President Barack Obama.
"You Barry," Wilmore said to the president. "You did it my nigga."
Morgan, who has written in the past about why black people shouldn't use the "n-word," took Wilmore to task for what he characterized as an affront to the most powerful man in the world.
"By calling the first black president of the United States a 'n*gger' on national TV, Larry Wilmore let down Barack Obama, and himself, and only guaranteed one thing: [the word's] longevity," Morgan wrote.
His response — also published at the Daily Mail — prompted another backlash from people who had grown tired of the British pundit sticking his nose where it was neither welcome nor productive.
Wilmore himself ridiculed Morgan during his program, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Monday night, teasing him for, among other things, missing the nuance of people using the word "nigga" versus "nigger."
"Piers, you did not properly conjugate that slur," Wilmore joked. "Nigger is what white people use to denigrate, demean, and dehumanize black people. Nigga is a term of endearment some black people use between each other to take back that power."
Morgan remained resolute, defying critics on Twitter.
There's little in what he's said or done since to indicate he'll stop sharing his thoughts on black American culture and politics — no matter how unsolicited or uninformed they may be.
It's a strange move for a middle-aged guy from the U.K. who looks like this — and whose lack of education around black culture and his own glaring privilege shine through with every stroke of his pen.
So how did we get here?
In a very short amount of time, Morgan has descended to depths once occupied by the likes of Don Lemon, Rachel Dolezal and a handful of others — public figures whose every utterance, especially concerning race, seems to provoke the ire of black America with dizzying ease.
But he wasn't always "that guy." From 1994 to 2011, Morgan worked on and off in tabloid journalism in the U.K., mostly for publications owned by FOX mogul Rupert Murdoch, where he covered celebrities and their scandals. In between, he served as a judge on America's Got Talent and on Donald Trump's reality TV show Celebrity Apprentice. In other words, it's safe to say race in America was a long way off his radar.
That all changed in 2011. In the wake of a phone-hacking scandal where reporters for the Daily Mirror were caught listening to celebrities' phone conversations, Morgan, the paper's editor at the time, got a gig hosting his own show on CNN.
He left for New York City soon after to start taping Piers Morgan Live. Two years later, in July 2013, Morgan scored an exclusive interview with Rachel Jeantel, a 17-year-old black girl who'd gained notoriety for testifying in a Florida murder trial where her best friend, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by a Sanford neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman.
It would end up being one of the most racially charged trials in a decade full of racially charged trials. A jury ultimately acquitted Zimmerman, and Jeantel appeared on Morgan's show a few days after to discuss the case.
Surprisingly, Morgan's interview — much of which you can watch on YouTube — reads as a comparatively kind treatment of the teen, who'd been talked down to on the witness stand and derided by the public for her speech patterns and reticence, which some people considered off-putting for a key witness.
"A lot of people have mocked you," Morgan acknowledged at one point. "They've called you all sorts of things, you know that, on Twitter. I came to your defense at one stage, I found it so disgusting ... They were very racist to you."
But Morgan's tame approach to Jeantel would elude him in future interviews. Soon, his more abrasive and bull-headed side would take over, making his interactions with other black guests — and later, black readers — noticeably less pleasant.
Six months after the Jeantel interview, Morgan had another high-profile black woman on his show: Janet Mock, a transgender activist and writer. This one didn't go as well.
During the interview, Morgan made a passing reference to Mock having been "a boy until she was 18," and later, on Twitter, to her "formerly being a man." Though she did not address them on the show, Mock criticized Morgan for these two instances of misgendering afterwards on Twitter:
She took issue with what she felt was Morgan's sensationalist approach to their conversation.
"He's trying to do info-tainment," Mock told BuzzFeed at the time. "He doesn't really want to talk about trans issues, he wants to sensationalize my life and not really talk about the work that I do and what the purpose of me writing this book was about."
Morgan lashed out on Twitter, saying she was falsely accusing him of transphobia.
The next day, Morgan invited Mock on his show again to clear the air. It was a learning opportunity, but Morgan's tone was frequently hostile, defensive and argumentative.
He interrupted Mock on numerous occasions. Though he maintained a conciliatory stance throughout, Morgan kept making his own perceived victimization on Twitter the central issue, rather than truly listening and understanding why Mock — and much of the trans community — had taken exception to his words.
"Why is it so offensive?" Morgan repeatedly asked of his original remark.
Back where we started
Provoking ire has long been part of Piers Morgan's brand. He's engaged in public feuds with multiple celebrity figures, including Madonna, Kelsey Grammer and Hugh Grant.
He's taken disputes that started during his TV interviews home and engaged with guests on Twitter, as he did with Mock. But none of these spats have been racially targeted.
Yet sometime after he left CNN — the network claimed he had "failed to connect" with American audiences — Morgan started dipping his toes into black cultural commentary.
It made little sense at the time, and it makes little sense now. But in November 2014, three months after a white police officer shot and killed unarmed, black 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Morgan used his platform as U.S. editor-at-large for the Daily Mail to pen an op-ed focused on the defining non-issue of America's race conversation.
"If black Americans want the N-word to die, they will have to kill it themselves," the Daily Mail headline read. It could not have been more out of step with what people in the United States needed to be talking about at the time: systemic racism, police violence and a lack of accountability for people who murdered black people, to name a few.
Piers Morgan has managed to go from at least a semblance of journalistic legitimacy to a glorified internet troll in less than two years. In doing so, he's tapped a reliable market: There will always be a hunger for cultural commentators lecturing black people on how they should and shouldn't behave — just ask Bill Cosby or the on-air personalities at FOX News.
Less clear is Morgan's endgame. Can he really believe what he's saying in his terrible op-eds? His unifying theme seems to be that racism will end when black people comply with the white mainstream's expectations of how they should discuss racial inequality — almost as though white people, by and large, just want everybody to get along but black folks keep bringing up this pesky "race" issue and ruining it for everybody.
At the center of this philosophy is hope for a "colorblind" future, which is actually just a deflection of the harsh realities facing black people in the United States. Racism isn't a thing because black people keep saying "nigger" — or because Beyoncé went from being everyone's favorite pop star to a militant black radical hellbent on forcing dead black children down our throats.
It won't simply go away if we ignore it. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about Piers Morgan's career.