The Christopher Hitchens interview I screwed up

For many Americans, Hitchens was best known as a journalist for The Nation, where he toiled for nearly two decades, working out of Washington D.C. He was considered very much a man of the Left at that time, a self-proclaimed Marxist who wrote passionately about the Palestinians and the Kurds, among his many causes. But over the years he became less doctrinaire, announcing he was pro-life, and having serious issues with one William Jefferson Clinton; his disdain for the president became explicit in 1999, when he claimed that his former ally Sidney Blumenthal had perjured himself before a grand jury when he said he was not the source of negative comments made to reporters about Monica Lewinsky.

Hitchens changed even more after 9/11 and famously became a big supporter of the war on terrorism. In fact, he was said to have invented the term "Islamo-fascism" to describe the threat by Al Qaeda and others in the Middle East.

I worked at KFPA radio in the mid to late 1990s as the Saturday night news anchor on the evening broadcast. Because there was often a dearth of local news, we covered a lot of international stories on the weekend 'casts. At KFPA at the time, there were a few binders containing the names and telephone numbers of noted academics and journalists who were experts in certain subjects or countries (this was essentially just as the Internet began and before really anyone had cell phones).

In some cases the contact list included home telephone numbers, critical information on a Saturday when we were covering a breaking news story.

In any case, if you'll recall back in August of 1997 when Princess Diana was killed, the U.S. media was hot for any Brits to give color commentary about What it All Meant. Hitchens did Meet The Press the following day, and I was able to make contact with him in the ensuing week for an interview for the KPFA Evening News that Saturday.

And then, to double my fun, that Friday before our scheduled interview Mother Teresa passed away.

In 1995 the mischievous Hitchens had published what a pamphlet called The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, which some in the Catholic world decried as blasphemous.

So just my luck — I was able to snag Hitchens to pontificate on both Diana and Mother Teresa. Pretty good stuff. And he definitely delivered, speaking to me eloquently and sometimes hysterically for about 15 minutes on both subjects (our broadcast was only half an hour, so obviously we would only have time for so many of his bon mots).

So you can then imagine my horror after the interview was over and I played back the tape (which was reel-to-reel back then) and realized that somehow I hadn't captured any of it!

To this day I don't know what went wrong. But I immediately had to re-group. After staring into space for a couple of minutes, I realized I would have to call back this extremely busy and at times intimidating man, to try to salvage the interview.

But I choked when he asked me what part of the interview didn't I get?

"All of it," I said, holding my breath.

He paused, and said, "Oh, dear," and then said he was about to go out to a show and didn't have any time to talk further.

"Perhaps you should think of another line of work," he said, somewhat sympathetically.

What I later discovered from working in radio news was that this has happened to a lot of people at least once in their career. The question is: how do you recover when you've lost your tape?

What I should have done (and did so in the future) was to tell Hitchens that I just needed him to answer one particular question. Most "interviewees" never have a problem with that. Then, if you're slick, you might squeeze another question in, and perhaps another.

But when you let somebody know that you missed the whole thing, well, the interview subject, I would teach my radio interns later, might not think you were worth their time.

The only other time something similar happened to me was after a phone interview nearly a decade later with William Cope Moyers, the son of legendary broadcaster Bill Moyers, who had just written a memoir about his addiction to drugs, called Broken:My Story of Addiction and Redemption. Moyers, who worked in television news himself, was extremely cool with what happened, and ended up sitting down for a follow-up interview that lasted nearly as long as the original interview.

The only time I met Hitchens in person was in 1999, when he spoke and signed copies of his book No One Left To Lie to: The Values of the Worst Family.
He smiled when I told him I worked at KPFA and made some remarks about how he hoped I wasn't one of the folks there who actually still believed in Bill Clinton.

Hitchens earned a whole new group of fans when he wrote his 2007 book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, in which he took on all the major religions with, as Reuters described it, "his trenchant atheism."

It was also fun to see the surprise among neo-conservatives who thought that he was part of "their" team when he would come out with a contrarian position, such as when he was waterboarded for a stunt and wrote that it was definitely torture.

You'll definitely be reading more about him in the days and weeks to come in some of your favorite publications, and no doubt most of it will be true. He was truly one of a kind, and the political/literary culture will miss him greatly.

  • Christopher Hitchens

It was with sadness but not surprise that I learned that Christopher Hitchens had died of pneumonia, a complication of esophageal cancer, Thursday night at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston at the age of 62.

The author/journalist/raconteur/commentator had an amazing career. Before he was diagnosed with cancer in June of 2010, he was a regular contributor for years to Vanity Fair, the Atlantic and Slate, and still continued to write for all three publications even while he struggled with his disease.

He also wrote a slew of books, including his memoir, Hitch-22, which was published right before he was diagnosed.

I only had a couple of encounters with the man, but both were memorable, and one was particularly painful.

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