Bad Idea

Radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt is also a lawyer, an author, a blogger and a former colleague of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts Jr.

On July 29, he said on his blog Hugh that he’d been called by a Washington Post reporter who wanted to interview him about Roberts. “Fine,” Hewitt had his assistant tell her. “She could interview me. Only one condition: The interview had to be conducted on air, live, during my broadcast.”

The reporter declined, telling the assistant that she didn’t want her story “out there” before it ran.

Sounds perfectly plausible to me. “We have competition,” I wrote to Patterico, another blogger who kindly posted my comments at (Aug. 5) “and if I am working on something the Denver Post does not know about, I sure don’t want them to find out because they can hear what questions I’m asking my sources before I publish.”

I have no problem with people I talk to taping the conversation _ in Colorado, they don’t even have to tell me they are doing it. “But ‘live,’ that is contemporaneously, is a sticking point if I am the one doing the reporting,” I told Patterico.

Hewitt affects not to believe this. “Fine, I thought,” he writes. “But then I got to thinking: Isn’t journalism supposed to be in the public interest? If (the reporter) wants information from me, and I am willing to give it to her, isn’t she putting her own interests in a ‘scoop’ or an ‘angle’ ahead of the public’s by refusing to conduct an interview she thought would be useful in the first place? And isn’t she going forward with a story she knows may well be unnecessarily incomplete because she doesn’t like the fact that her questions and my answers would have been on the record?”

Rhetorical questions all, but how does Hewitt know what is in the public interest if he doesn’t even know what she wants to ask him? He made quite a show of not knowing. And even if it’s true that she believes the interview should not be public, he has no idea why; she might be right.

For instance, around the same time, the blogosphere was in high d(r)udgeon that the press was investigating the adoption of Roberts’ children. Suppose that’s what she wanted to ask him about?

That’s hypothetical, of course. But as lawyers know, exploring hypotheticals is often fruitful, so let’s explore this one a bit further _ not talking about Hewitt and Roberts, but some hypothetical important nominee and his former colleague who is now a prominent radio personality.

Suppose the reporter has received a credible tip that there was something dodgy about the adoption of the nominee’s twin Chinese daughters. Perhaps a former paralegal at the law office that handled the adoption alleges that the parents bribed someone.

That should be checked out. If true, it is definitely a story, no matter how awkward for the children. If false, it should be quietly buried, which it can’t be if it is being broadcast.

And suppose the hypothetical radio host knows, or believes, that the allegations are true. What’s he going to say when asked live, on the air? He might not have been expecting that question.

Or, suppose he has heard the rumors, but believes they were started by a disgruntled former paralegal who was fired on suspicion of dealing cocaine in the lunchroom. What’s he going to say about that? If she was charged and convicted, maybe he’d say so, but otherwise, probably not.

And _ human relationships being endlessly messy _ suppose that is what he believes, but in fact the paralegal is innocent and was framed by her boss, the real dealer.

And what if her boss is actually the on-air host’s mistress? Or his secret gay lover. Who is blackmailing him. (Wave hypothetical flag again.)

Most stories aren’t like that. But sometimes they are, and perhaps the paper got badly burned on one of them a while back, and so now it has a policy. In which case, the reporter’s refusal may have nothing to do with the nominee at all.

Sometimes, on a big investigative project, premature public discussion means the public never will learn the truth. Think corrupt politician or huge corporate scandal. Journalists may work on such a project for months, gradually figuring out the true story. Only then, when the story is checked out and nailed down flat, do they interview the central figures.

The journalists cannot accept Hewitt’s offer for their early interviews, because they don’t know when the story will run, and if the interviews are made public before it does, the target may wise up and discover a sudden need to move to a place that has no extradition treaty with the United States. But if they can’t do the early interviews, they may never learn the full story.

In short, Hewitt’s offer is bogus. And being Hewitt, he ought to know better.

(Contact Linda Seebach at Rocky Mountain News,