Christopher Hitchens wrote serious books full of complicated arguments, vast amounts of research and considerable humor and insight.
So when I moderated three debates with him on the substance of "god is not Great," and conducted a three-hour interview on "Hitch-22," his dazzling memoir, I took the time to read the books closely and make extensive preparations. I was particularly careful with regard to "god is not Great," because we had so fundamental a disagreement on the question of whether Christ is indeed God that I wanted to be sure to give his best arguments full and fair airing.
In 22 years of a broadcast career, I have read more than nine of every 10 books I have discussed with the more than 1,000 authors I have been privileged to interview. That simple courtesy is why writers as accomplished and diverse as Bernard Cornwell, Lawrence Wright, Ken Follett, Henry Kissinger, Vince Flynn, Tim Weiner, Daniel Silva, Robert Kaplan and hundreds of others have been willing to spend the time on air to discuss their ideas at length.
Sometimes a book is a romp, like C.J. Box's Joe Pickett novels or Brad Thor's thrillers, but often it takes a lot of time and study to be prepared, and to take seriously the points a writer is trying to make. Joby Warrick's "The Triple Agent" and Jay Nordlinger's "Peace, They Say" are both wonderfully written, but they are about very serious subjects. There is little point in having the authors on if they aren't going to be able to tell the audience what their books are about. When Justice Stephen Breyer comes to the studio to talk about "Making Our Democracy Work," or Dick Cheney to talk about "In My Time," they both are received with the same level of courtesy and preparation, the same tone of questioning. With authors, the audience doesn't want to hear the host score points or turn argumentative. They want to know what matters in the book.
C-SPAN's Brian Lamb set the standard for author interviews. No one can match him, but everyone can try, and when a writer as skilled as, say, Del Wilber, whose "Rawhide Down" hasn't had a negative review yet from anyone who read it, says an interview was the best he has had, well then, that's a compliment worth receiving.
Which is why Piers Morgan's non-interview of Jonah Goldberg last week ought to have been an embarrassment to Morgan and his network, CNN. Morgan had quite obviously not read Jonah's wonderful "Tyranny of Cliches," and seemed almost afraid to let Jonah speak a complete sentence, for fear that the Los Angeles Times columnist and NationalReview.com contributor might have wielded his well-known wit against his host.
So Morgan launched a fusillade of bizarre questions, few of which had anything to do with the book and none of which genuinely sought or allowed an answer. Goldberg kept his cool and repaid gracelessness with graciousness, but should he have done so? Hitchens would never have put up with such behavior by someone so obviously unprepared and also so churlish, but the American way is to smile and look quizzically at the boorish host.
CNN's ratings are in the tank, and it is because the network increasingly allows new and unprepared hosts to displace pros like Wolf Blitzer, Candy Crowley and John King, or CNN burdens a good interviewer like Anderson Cooper with an inane slogan like "Keeping Them Honest" and obliges him to repeat it in an exercise designed to discredit whatever follows.
CNN is not the only network that has abandoned even the pretense of preparation for interviews or serious inquiry into what the guest believes and why, but Morgan's treatment of Goldberg was a new low, even for a network that launched "Parker-Spitzer" with the apparently sincere belief that someone would watch it.
Jonah's my guest for two hours Monday night -- on AM 1260 in D.C. sometime between 6 and 9 p.m., and on AM 970 in New York between 7 and 10 p.m. Note to the mainstream media: Give a listen and learn not just why Jonah's got a huge best-seller, again, but also the rudiments of a real interview.
Examiner Columnist Hugh Hewitt is a law professor at Chapman University Law School and a nationally syndicated radio talk show host who blogs daily at HughHewitt.com.