Sure, I'll go on your show! Just not with that guy.
Some guests will turn down appearances with Daniel Pipes, the notorious Israel hawk; same with University of Chicago professor Ali Abuminah, who supports Palestinian causes. Neither is known for his rhetorical restraint: A head-to-head matchup between the two on BBC Radio once resulted in an on-air meltdown.
Sometimes the refusal is rooted in a perfectly understandable instinct for self-preservation. "Some people won't go on with [Alan] Dershowitz," says one booker. "You don't want to have your ass kicked." Hosts can be intimidating, too. Michael Kinsley, a former Crossfire host and Slate founder, said some guests wouldn't go on with co-host Pat Buchanan: "Not even on alleged principle. Most of the time it was because they were scared. He was very good." Same with former Soviet spokesman Vladimir Posner, who became famous in the late 1980s as the Soviets' most articulate, handsome, and—crucially—accent-free advocate. "I had one or two administration foreign-policy experts who refused to go on with him," says Gil Pimentel, who produced Nightline.
Self-preservation can also take the form of not wanting your opponent to raise embarrassing issues. Ann Coulter once vetoed a CNN appearance because another guest, Air America host Sam Seder, was likely to mention a controversy over Coulter allegedly voting in the wrong precinct. (Seder was booted in favor of Slate's Mickey Kaus.) Likewise, Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake was slated to speak last month with the New Republic's James Kirchick about Sen. Joe Lieberman on the NPR show To the Point. But in the end, Hamsher appeared alone while Kirchick spoke separately with a third guest, Ed Kilgore. Hamsher had apparently objected to going on the air with Kirchick, who often reminds readers and listeners about the time Hamsher digitally altered a picture of Joe Lieberman to make him appear in blackface. (Hamsher denied the entire radio incident.)
In many cases, the objection is personal. You have to be careful booking guests who don't like each other. Ill-advised pairings that come to mind: former Bush spokesman Scott McClellan and Karl Rove; former Bush loyalist Matthew Dowd and Karl Rove; former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Karl Rove. "You'd have to have the deft touch," recalls former Good Morning America producer Heidi Berenson. "Either to put them in different locations, or pre-tape one, or scurry one down the hallway. Sometimes it turned into a covert operation."
Then there's a category all its own: Coulter. Lanny Davis will not go on the air with Coulter, period. "The last time I was on with her," he said, "she was so venomous and vindictive and hateful … I literally went home and took a shower." Indeed, Coulter's name came up more than anyone else's as the most objectionable co-guest. "She's just ruthless," says one booker. "She filibusters. There's no nuance, there's no hope." Hosts are no warmer: There are probably fewer shows that will have her on than won't.
Coulter herself doesn't understand why. "I never insult guests personally or talk over them the way they do to me, so anyone who won't go on with me is just being a pussy," she wrote in an e-mail. Into that category fall Anderson Cooper, who won't have her on his show, and Elizabeth Holtzman, who Coulter says "stormed off" the set of Hannity and Colmes during a discussion of the Clinton impeachment in 1998. ("I believe in reasoned discourse," Holtzman told me, "not screaming.") "I can see why Anderson Cooper won't have me on—let's be honest: I'm pretty sure I could take him," Coulter wrote to me. "But what about the rest of them? Are they all afraid of a 99-pound woman in a mini-skirt?" (Of course, Coulter is not guilt-free when it comes to storming off sets.)
Most of the time, though, guests aren't even aware of their snubbing. "I'm sure it has happened," says columnist and Morning Joe regular Mike Barnicle. "The producers probably feel so badly for me, they never tell me the people said, 'Fuck no.' "
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.