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Shocker: Tribune reporter did not relish 'Nancy Grace' appearance

Published January 16, 2014 1:55 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In the latest sign that my hiring was a rare misstep by this esteemed outlet, I agreed Wednesday to go on Headline News' "Nancy Grace."

My charge: to speak about a Texas couple's suspicion that former kidnapper and Millcreek fertility clinic worker Thomas Lippert switched out the husband's sperm sample and fathered their 21-year-old daughter.

Now, I'm clearly stupid, but I'm not stupid enough to think this was going to be a great segment. This was, after all, Nancy Grace, the inspiration behind my favorite Scott Pierce headline of 2013: "Eeek! Is Nancy Grace headed for Utah?"

But I figured that with the University of Utah's investigation possibly dead-ending, more exposure might lure a couple of sources. And I've never done TV before. At worst, it would be a learning opportunity.

The producer armed me with some pro tips: 1. Don't thank Nancy for being on the show, 2. If Nancy asks a question that you don't have an answer for, say "That's an excellent question" and change the topic, and 3. Try to make your answers as specific as possible.

She then emailed a list of 10 questions she'd written for Grace, and I printed them out and prepared direct, targeted, infrared-guided answers to each. I was ready.

At roughly 2 p.m., I got the call, bobbed my head to the disaster-movie theme music, and Grace introduced me.

The super-specific question she had for me was — and it's pretty nuanced, so follow carefully here — "Matthew. I'm stunned. What happened?"

Uh.

Um.

I've since counted that I was given 13 seconds on a matter that I've written 3,000 words about. I can only guess that my mumbling triggered some ratings alert and producers started hopping madly, their sweat beading while they mimed cutthroat gestures. Somebody probably dove out the window.

Like a mongoose striking a cobra (with me being like a cobra only in that I posed an imminent threat to their viewership) Grace reflexively squelched me with an "Oh dear Lord in Heaven!" and cut to a shouting Rita Cosby.

Thereafter it was "Bombast away!"

Grace's experts shared increasingly dramatic opinions, building off the sketchy foundation of "Some criminal probably fathered lots of people." Somebody, I believe Grace, more than once emphasized the word "masturbating."

And let's pause to note here: The producer who invited me is clearly a decent news-gatherer; she had emailed me relevant questions and she or somebody she works with tracked down Lippert's widow (Jean) and Branum family adviser-of-sorts CeCe Moore. It's too bad others on the segment didn't care what those women had to say.

I began to jot down a list of clarifications that Grace never returned to me for. In the interest of, you know, telling the truth, here they are:

• The Texas family is the Branums, not the Barnums.

• We don't know if Reproductive Medical Technologies was a "popular" clinic.

• While you'd be rightly outraged if Jean Lippert had kept quiet about criminal activity, that has never been her story. Rather, she said, Thomas Lippert kept a photo in his wallet of a baby he claimed to have fathered via aboveboard sperm donation.

• Jean Lippert's feeling that her husband was illicitly fathering a child "once a month" — given that, again, she claims to have never known of this until she saw it on KUTV last week — is hardly a reasonable indication that there are more than a hundred such cases.

• There was talk of a 20-year window for the sperm-swapping. The Tribune has no reason to believe Lippert was employed by RMTI for longer than 9 years.

• Lippert kidnapping victim Susan Wells Cochran told prosecutors that they had never had intercourse, so Grace's insinuation that it may have happened is baseless.

• This was not "uncovered" by Nancy Grace. It wasn't uncovered by "CBS This Morning," from whom she obtained footage. It wasn't uncovered by CNN wire or The Associated Press, who widely disseminated it. It wasn't uncovered by KUTV, which broke and has the best claim on the story. And it wasn't even uncovered by Moore, a genealogy expert to whom the Branums turned first. It was uncovered, fairly remarkably, by the Branums.

Anyway, besides my parents — and then, only maybe — this is more than you cared to know.

But the truth is that, jokes aside, real people may be affected if Thomas Lippert did what the Branums and his widow think he did. And it's yet possible that Lippert didn't knowingly do anything — that Annie Branum (described as a beautiful, kindhearted astrophysics major) is the miraculous result of a genuine laboratory mishap.

Thirteen seconds isn't long enough to explain it.

— Matthew Piper

Note: I've only watched the abridged clip (seen at top), so if they cut some of the silliness from the final segment ... well, good.