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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

CNN Host Makes Most of Akin\'s No-Show


When Representative Todd Akin abruptly cancelled an interview with Piers Morgan on Monday night, Mr. Morgan trotted out an empty chair instead.

The scene, irresistible to political insiders, played out in prime time on CNN on Monday night, one day after Mr. Akin told a local television station in Missouri that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely become pregnant. His comments - contradicted by medical experts and confounding to many of his fellow Republicans - have sparked calls for him to drop out of the Senate race in Missouri.

“You're looking live at the empty chair that Todd Akin was supposed to be sitting in for a live, prime-time exclusive interview,” Mr. Morgan said at the beginning of his program, “Piers Morgan Tonight.”

The visual, of course, was a stunt, designed to draw attention both to Mr. Akin's absence and to the interview show that Mr. Morgan started hosting on CNN last year. Attention is arguably something that CNN could use more of, having suffered through a period of low ratings performance and bad press.

But what a stunt it was. The empty chair lit up Twitter and made the best of a bad situation for Mr. Morgan's hourlong program. Jonathan Wald, the executive producer, wrote on Twitter shortly after the program started, “Lemonade,” as in, “When life gives you lemons…”

In place of Mr. Akin, political analysts discussed the day's campaign news. But not before Mr. Morgan explained what had transpired earlier in the day. Senator Claire McCaskill, Mr. Akin's Democratic opponent, was booked on the program early in the morning. The program sought to book Mr. Akin, too, with little suc cess at first.

In the early afternoon, according to Twitter messages by Mr. Wald, Ms. McCaskill cancelled her appearance, citing a “scheduling conflict.” The cancellation gave Mr. Morgan's producers plenty of time to rethink their plans. Then, shortly after 7 p.m., Mr. Wald announced what he thought was a coup: Mr. Akin would be coming on live at 9 p.m.

Mr. Wald declined an interview request to discuss what happened next, but according to a CNN staff member who insisted on anonymity to discuss internal matters, Mr. Akin came under immediate pressure from Republican campaign officials to back out of the interview booking. Some of the same officials mounted a coordinated effort to push Mr. Akin out of the Senate race earlier Monday.

Around 8:30 p.m., Mr. Wald decided that he would put the empty chair on screen if Mr. Akin was a no-show. There was still a possibility, he thought, that the candidate would call in by phone - but no.

According to Mr. Mo rgan's statement on his program, it was Rex Elsass, a political consultant to Mr. Akin, who “pulled the interview at the last possible moment.”

Mr. Morgan added, tantalizingly, “Why would he say yes, then no? We can only speculate. But we can tell you this - Todd Akin has until tomorrow at 6 p.m. Eastern to say whether he's staying in the race or bowing out and letting the G.O.P. replace him on the ballot.”

Like any attention-seeking TV host, Mr. Morgan then offered Mr. Akin an “open invitation to join us - in that chair, whenever you're ready.”