Christine O’Donell’s CNN Walk-Off: A Perplexingly Illogical Media Relations Decision

Just between us, Christine, I don’t think you’re a witch. But I do think you’re naïve and ill-informed

It’s gotta be something in the green room snacks at CNN.

By walking off Piers Morgan’s show Wednesday night, former U.S. senatorial candidate Christine “I’m Not a Witch” O’Donnell reminded us why we think she’s such a flake. And how embarrassing that her role model was a has-been beauty queen who did likewise during a TV appearance for the same purpose, over the same exact subject, in the same exact CNN timeslot.

Back in 2009, a disgraced beauty pageant contestant hawking a quickie autobiography called Larry King “inappropriate” for asking a few softball questions about gay marriage. 

She then pouted a little, looked off-camera a lot, unclipped her microphone and sat in awkward live-TV silence.  But common sense prevailed and she stuck around.

Also read: Christine O'Donnell on Piers Morgan: 'I Was Not There to Talk About Sex'

Flash forward to O’Donnell, currently in the midst of her own Redemption/Reinvention Tour. She too is pitching a book about how put-upon she was during her circus of a Senate run. After stops on Good Morning America, Fox News and Sirius, she wound up chatting with Morgan, King’s 9PM replacement. 

Morgan’s no stranger to puffball questions either (just ask Charlie Sheen) and was quite gentlemanly to O’Donnell, teeing up easy pitches for her on topics in the book and giving her ample time to ramble on and make frequent plugs.

And then, suddenly and strangely, she wouldn’t.

What happened next – that O’Donnell shut down the interview – has three possible explanations. And then what was done (or not) by the episode’s three main players has larger ramifications for each of them.

At its most basic, O’Donnell refused to answer Morgan’s repeated attempts to get her opinion on gay marriage and she ended the segment. While O’Donnell’s legacy is littered with illogical media relations decisions, this one’s especially perplexing. 

For starters, she argued on-camera with Morgan that her appearance on his show was meant to focus on the policy issues covered in her book — yet as he pointed out, that subject was indeed examined in its chapters. 

She complained that she didn’t want to be pressured into talking about sexuality — yet this is a woman who’s built her entire career in political advocacy — as a candidate and particularly as a TV personality wannabe — zeroed in on heavy-duty sexual issues such as masturbation, including her own.

But don’t you also wonder why O’Donnell’s publicist didn’t anticipate the gay marriage question and rehearse her with some easy response to just make the subject go away if raised?

What seems to be the most popular explanation about why she shut down the CNN interview was its PR value. In her final moments of conversation with Morgan, O’Donnell made reference to being late for a women’s event that evening (a coven, perhaps?).

So, a dramatic TV walk-off that got her to the event on time while also getting her hundreds of publicity hits makes sense.

Another possible reason is that she doesn’t just understand Journalism 101. Media who’ve been laughing over this latest O’Donnellism have been quoting her retort to Morgan, “Don’t you think as a host that if I say (what’s in my book) is what I want to talk about, that’s what we should address?” 

As one longtime editor commented, only if she was at a cocktail party.

The third explanation is that she harbors some odd theory about Media Friends with Benefits. In several interviews, O’Donnell has talked about being particularly upset with the recycled clips of her earlier “Politically Incorrect” ABC latenight series appearances, where she first babbled about witchcraft, because “I thought (host Bill Maher) was a friend.”

In an interview Morgan did with Broadcasting & Cable’s Ben Grossman Wednesday evening shortly after her walk-off, the CNN host noted that he’d met O’Donnell months earlier at a business breakfast and it had been social and pleasant.

So, perhaps she made a similar assumption.

Finally, the incident raises some questions for its three principals.

First, initial ratings show that Morgan had only a slight bump in ratings with Wednesday’s episode. That’s possibly because while the host and his executive producer Jonathan Wald quickly promoted the dust-up every which way in advance of the episode’s airing, why didn’t they shoot the obvious behind-the-scenes? 

As of this writing, it doesn’t appear that they let a camera run to capture O’Donnell after the segment shut down to get the meltdown footage everyone wants to see. They might’ve been concerned that doing so could scare off more legitimate potential guests who don’t want to be caught off-set and candid. But an exception could be made for someone so consistently wacky.

Yet this promotional decision — or lack of it — defines one ongoing problem with Morgan’s show:  it doesn’t chase obvious PR opportunities even when these are handed to them. 

Second, the job market’s awful. So let’s hope that the O’Donnell handler who was on-set but off-camera — the person with the football player’s shoulders who body-blocked the studio camera while O’Donnell pulled off her mike and exited — isn’t a publicist. That’s because s/he won’t be booking any clients on CNN or pretty much any other legitimate outlet anytime soon.

And then there’s O’Donnell herself.

It’ll be interesting to see how many of the bookings on her current media tour will be honored. That’s because the bar’s now been set for other journalists to try and piss her off to the extent that she’ll walk out on them too.  And thanks to her actions, she’ll be facing a new line of questioning that clearly isn’t among her preferred topics.

So just between us Christine: No, I don’t think you’re a witch. But I do think you’re naïve and ill-informed about the arena in which you’re trying to play, and that you’ve lacked the curiosity to learn about it. 

My advice is to go read a journalism textbook, hire yourself a personal publicist who’s well-liked by the media and make some amends. That way, you might be able to revive your lifelong TV pundit dreams.

If the spirit moves you.