One Day Left to Bag the Canned Oprah Intv, Replace it With a Real Newsmaker

Piers Morgan's launch statement: Oprah interview

From the moment it was first announced that Oprah would be the first guest for the launch of Piers Morgan Tonight, I feared it would be a problem.  What if a really big news story captured the imagination of the entire nation?

What if that news story sparked a unflinching dialog that crossed political parties, all generations, one story that involved  the entire spectrum of modern debate: gun control, mental health resources, parental responsibility, anti-Semitism, marijuana, free speech, the presidency and more.

My “what if” happened on January 8th in Tuscon, Arizona and CNN’s coverage today, eight days later,  remains riveting and relevant.

WILL ANYONE ELSE CHALLENGE  “OPRAH”  ON THE FIRST SHOW?

This morning, Fareed Zakaria analyzed America’s gun culture and toxic political rhetoric,  but first looked forward to next week’s White House guest, the president of China. (I will try to resist any references to “Hu’s on first.)

Up next, Howie Kurtz reviewed the role of mainstream media which, he noted for the second week, got in wrong from the beginning when NPR, ABC News and others reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been shot and killed.  Kurtz went on to discuss the rhetoric and the media’s role and responsibility in covering the president, Sarah Palin and more.

Dr. Fred Frese and his "beautiful mind": a great guest for Piers Morgan?

The most riveting  of all CNN’s coverage was Candy Crowley’s hour with a father of an adult schizophrenic and a truly amazing man named Fred Frese III, who is director of psychology at  Western Reserve Psychiatric Hospital.  To call Dr. Frese’s 30-year career distinguished is an understatement.  Once an officer in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, Frese had numerous involuntary hospitalizations in state, private and military psych wards. Despite a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, he pursued a medical degree and earned a doctorate in psychology from Ohio University.

I had more of my questions about the  Arizona shooting answered by this hour on CNN than any other.  Dr. Frese,  with all his twitchy charm, explained schizophrenia — its real threats, challenges and  treatments — like no other.  He began by invoking the pride his (schizophrenia) community had in Dr. John Nash,  the nobel laureate portrayed by Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind.”  The mental health community should have equal pride in Dr. Frese who, in the most disarming way, explains that as with alcoholics where there are happy drunks and mean ones, he’s a happy schizophrenic.  Dr. Frese, for one, would make a great first guest for Piers Morgan. After that, someone should open up on-air phone lines for Dr. Frese, for about three hours.

In between all these better-than-usual CNN hours: Piers Morgan’s promo with Oprah who says, “Whew, that was the toughest interview I’ve had in 20 years.”

If that’s really true, then it will hold.  Of all people, Oprah will understand.  It’s more important for Morgan to show he’s more nimble than safe, more relevant than star struck.

The most fun part about planning in broadcast news is when you have to rip up the plan at the last minute and start again.  I recall the time at ABC News when we traveled to Istanbul to broadcast Good Morning America live for the full two hours. We also had advance teams in Kuwait and Baghdad for our  look at the region just weeks before the invasion of Iraq.  Diane Sawyer had just finished taping an interview with the president of Turkey about whether or not he would allow US military planes fly over his country to get to Iraq when we got word that the space shuttle Columbia had disintegrated over Texas.

We were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time on the wrong story.  So we brought everyone back, on whatever puddle jump flights we could arrange and made certain Charlie Gibson and a team were in Houston for Monday morning’s show.  I am proud to say no one argued that the million dollars we ate that day was anything other than  the cost of doing business.

Of course, it would be interesting, newsworthy  and relevant for Morgan, launching his show on Martin Luther King Day, to talk to America’s most successful and most influential black woman about race in America, even race in the arts.   But the promos I’ve seen today show Oprah talking about Stedman and the meaning of love, the tabloids and OWN, the new cable network she’s launched.

Another promo shows Oprah backstage at some event telling viewers, “CNN did a really good job hiring that Piers Morgan.”

Yes, Piers Morgan is a great journalist, a fresh personality and strong choice for a new era.  Let’s hope CNN does as good a job guiding him as hiring him.

As the other promo says: Piers Morgan 1 day to go….

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