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CNN's Morgan Breaks Silence On 'News Of The World'

STEVE INSKEEP, host: The News Corp. scandal is proving to be awkward for CNN prime-time star Piers Morgan. He used to be editor at Murdoch's London tabloid The Sun, and then he became the top editor of News of the World in the mid '90s. And now he's been watching as two of his successors at News of the World have been arrested -though not criminally charged - and a third lost his job.

Last night after this firestorm had raged for weeks, Morgan broke what had been near-total silence on the matter.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik dissects the delicate dance performed by this trans-Atlantic television personality.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Here was Piers Morgan last Thursday on CNN, winkingly interviewing Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner about his broken engagement.

(Soundbite of television clip)

Mr. PIERS MORGAN: Tell me about these young ladies who are nestling in my Green Room. Who are they?

Mr. HUGH HEFNER: Well Anna has been she was going to be our maid of honor...

FOLKENFLIK: Indeed, Morgan's recent lineup has been larded with celebrities, with an occasional dip into politics and the economy. While CNN as a network has covered the hacking scandal extensively, Morgan has sidestepped the issue, aside from a largely overlooked appearance on the daytime talk show "The Talk." CNN's media criticism show "Reliable Sources" acknowledged as much on Sunday.

(Soundbite of television show, "Reliable Sources")

Mr. HOWARD KURTZ: (Host, "Reliable Sources") Well, you have to be careful, I think, about some of these allegations.

FOLKENFLIK: That's CNN's Howard Kurtz, host of the show.

(Soundbite of television show, "Reliable Sources")

Mr. KURTZ: A British blogger reported that CNN's Piers Morgan, who used to be editor of The Mirror, may have known about illegal conduct that took place at that newspaper some years ago. Piers Morgan has absolutely denied knowing about any such conduct, and I haven't seen any evidence. If that changes, I'll let you know.

FOLKENFLIK: The Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff challenged Kurtz.

(Soundbite of television show, "Reliable Sources")

Mr. MICHAEL WOLFF (Biographer): That sounded like an official company denial.

Mr. KURTZ: The official denial is all we have because Piers Morgan hasn't talked about it extensively. I'd be happy to talk to him about it.

FOLKENFLIK: Of course, the most pressing connection involves his time at Murdoch's two best-selling tabloids, not The Mirror.

The issue presents a challenge to other journalists, too. In the U.K., News Corp's own TV channel Sky News has covered the scandal aggressively this month. It broadcast tapes of a contentious private meeting between the company's top newspaper executive and staffers for the shuttered News of the World. Here in this country, Fox News has given it far less coverage - though more than some of its critics might allow. But that includes this segment from the morning show "Fox and Friends." The first person speaking is Bob Dilenschneider, a crisis management executive; the second, Fox's Steve Doocy.

(Soundbite of television clip, "Fox and Friends")

Mr. BOB DILENSCHNEIDER (Crisis Management Executive): Citigroup, great bank; Bank of America, great bank. Are they getting the same kind of attention for hacking that took place less than a year ago, that News Corp. is getting today?

Mr. STEVE DOOCY (Fox News): Right, and then you - along those lines, you've got the news about this thing at the Pentagon...

FOLKENFLIK: Not really along those lines. Remember, all those organizations were themselves hacked in unrelated incidents. News Corp.'s journalists were allegedly the perpetrators of voicemail hacking, not - with very few exceptions - the targets of it.

Last night, at the top of his show, Morgan addressed his time as editor of both News of the World and the rival Daily Mirror. He did so directly and without his usual brio.

(Soundbite of television clip)

Mr. MORGAN: For the record, I do not believe that any story we published in either title was ever gained in an unlawful manner - nor have I ever seen anything to suggest that. But the experience of running those papers does give me a pretty good insight into how Rupert Murdoch operates - both when you work for and against him.

FOLKENFLIK: Morgan then directed a discussion with analysts who cast cold water on the Murdoch family's prospects of keeping control of News Corp. Morgan defended Rupert Murdoch.

Mr. MORGAN: When I worked for him, he wanted his editors to be tough, to be ruthless, to be aggressive - all the things you'd expect from a tabloid newspaper - but always to operate within the law. And I find it impossible, personally, knowing the man, to believe that he would have known about lawbreaking on his newspaper, let alone that he would condone it.

FOLKENFLIK: Morgan subsequently interviewed a Murdoch confidant. And then, about 22 minutes into the show, he returned to the tabloid saga of Casey Anthony.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.