If you know a lot of leftists, as I do, chances are you’ve encountered a link to this interview of Reza Aslan by Lauren Green at some point in the past two days or so. They see the interview as an example of the evil of Fox News. They claim it illustrates the bias of the network, and that it illustrates how “smart” the author is and how he “totally pwns the interviewer’s assumptions.”
I watched the interview, and I encourage you to do the same, but my main reaction to their claims about it is to think: Excuse me? Did we even watch the same interview? I believe neither the interviewer nor the guest came off particularly well in this exchange.
Lauren Green comes across as someone who likely hasn’t read the book, but who has read many reviews of the book, and is trying to provoke a response from the author. Reza Aslan, though, comes across as the ultimate disingenuous academic who says, “I am just a historian, I have no agenda whatsoever.” He keeps reiterating that he is an academic with a PhD, as though that is an adequate defense against bias. Green could have done a more skillful job challenging his assumptions or his arguments; her questions only serve to make him defensive, and so the interview doesn’t appear to accomplish much for either party.
Nevertheless, I didn’t view the interview as a complete failure for Fox News. Quite to the contrary, I thought it illustrated that there is more journalistic spirit alive at Fox News than at most of the mainstream press outlets who have interviewed the author or reported on the book. Why do I say that? Because, the other morning I had to endure this NPR interview with the same author of the same book, and I heard a lot of claims by Aslan about his book, and his beliefs, but no one challenged those claims or tried to interrogate Aslan’s motivations for writing the book that he wrote. The NPR interview was so concerned with helping him make his points, that it could have just as easily come from the public relations office of his publisher.
Not surprisingly, the other day NPR’s website featured this story entitled “Reza Aslan Hearts NPR”: “Author and religious scholar Reza Aslan is one of those people who’s at NPR West so often that he blurs the line between guest and employee. We always joke with our regulars that they should have a punch card, and when it’s full, they get their own cubicle.” Even less surprisingly, today NPR has this sympathetic story about the reaction on the left to the Fox News interview.
When you compare NPR’s very sympathetic pieces helping Aslan promote both his book and his talking points, with Lauren Green’s somewhat awkward attempt to interrogate him, though, it’s pretty clear to me which “news” outlet is more interested in informing its viewers and letting them decide for themselves. Green’s interview told us much more about Aslan than NPR’s pieces: it showed us something of his character, it introduced us to some of the controversies surrounding the book, and it raised the question of his worldview and its influence on his writing.
And as it turns out, there is a lot of reason for controversy, as
Pamela Geller Robert Spencer points out in her his own detailed post about the controversy (hat tip: Pamela Geller). Geller Spencer writes:
I don’t care about his scholarly credentials. Even if everything he had said about his degrees had been true, it would confer on his book no presumption of accuracy or truth. I am constantly assailed for lacking scholarly credentials, but as it happens, when it comes to writing about religion I have exactly the same credentials as Aslan, a B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, and an M.A. in Religious Studies. His other two degrees are in other fields.
But anyway, it doesn’t matter: there are plenty of fools with degrees, and plenty of geniuses without them. My work, and Aslan’s, stands or falls on its merits, not on the number of degrees we have. Aslan’s pulling rank on Lauren Green and starting to reel off (inaccurately) his degrees was a sign of insecurity: it implied that he didn’t think his book could stand on its merits, and had to be accepted because he had a lot of degrees. And indeed, his book doesn’t stand on its merits.
I encourage you to be sure to read
Geller’s Spencer’s whole post.
To my mind, the reaction on the left tells us more about their fondness for credentials and their disdain for Fox News than anything else; that the same people who view this interview as an instance of intolerable bias think nothing of the swill served up regularly by NPR and MSNBC should tell us all we need to know.