Fox News Doesn’t Understand How Academia Works

In one of the more bizarre interviews I’ve ever seen, a Fox News host interviews Reza Aslan, author of the new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In the interview the host – Lauren Green, who is a “religion correspondent” for Fox News Channel” – can’t seem to wrap her head around the fact that Aslan, a scholar who happens to be Muslim, has written an academic and historical book about Jesus.

The very first question of her interview is about this:

Now I want to be clear about, you’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?

This is an odd question to anyone who has spent any time around the academic study of religion, which this host clearly has not, as Aslan’s personal faith has absolutely zero relevance to his work as a scholar of religion. After Aslan explains that he has four degrees, one in New Testament, is fluent in biblical Greek, and has been studying Christianity for more than two decades, the host interrupts him to ask

It still begs the question, though, it begs the question, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?

For starters, no, it does not actually “beg the question;” that is a very specific logical fallacy and not simply another way of saying, “but it makes me wonder.” But pet peeves aside, I was continually amazed at the host’s inability to understand the very basic principals of how academia works. During the rest of the 10-minute interview, the host brings up Aslan’s Muslim faith at least 7 more times, every time dumbfounded that a Muslim could write an academic work about Jesus and there not be some secret Muslim plot afoot.

On Fox’s website where they have the video posted, the description of the video even hints at their disbelief that this is possible:

Reza Aslan, author of ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,’ says he wrote the book as a historian, not as a Muslim. [Emphasis mine]

The persistence of the host to continuously bring up Aslan’s faith, which is still completely irrelevant to his work as a historian, is bad enough, but she then quotes critics of the book (who seem to not have actually read the book) as if she has dismantled his entire argument. The first critic of the book she quotes is John Dickerson, a journalist and political correspondent – i.e. not an academic, not a historian, not a scholar. Aslan then proceeds to tell her how scholarship works:

Of course in any scholarly discussion of Jesus, as with any scholarly discussion of any ancient figure, there are going to be widespread differences.

Anyone who has even taken an introductory course in religion in college understands full well that scholarship is a giant, centuries-long discussion. Scholars put forth arguments and other scholars either agree or disagree with those arguments. Step by step, the field moves forward based on the evidence at hand and the application of theories and methodologies to our material. The process is exactly the same as it is in the so-called hard science fields like biology and math. Again, I am baffled.

But this interview has done more than just baffle me. It has renewed my conviction that groups like the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion must get involved in efforts to educate the media and the general public. These organizations, both of which I am a member, should be acting like trade unions, of sorts, and like lobbying groups.When news breaks that relates to our field, SBL and AAR should be contacting news outlets and putting them in touch with actual experts.

It is sad and immature that news organizations think that quoting a journalist’s Op-Ed is a legitimate critique of an academic book, but I think that we too must bear some of the responsibility. News organizations, for the most part, wouldn’t know who to contact if they wanted to and likely wouldn’t even know where to start looking. We should bear the burden of pointing them in the right direction, or at least in a direction that is toward someone who actually has a PhD in the matter being discussed.

So, yes, we should be outraged and we should work diligently to shame Fox News and Lauren Green (as I know the academic community already is on Twitter and elsewhere). Yes, we as a general public and especially as scholars of religion should demand more from news organizations “religion correspondents.” But then we need to get to work taking our job as educators seriously and in some cases that will mean that we need to move outside the classroom and on to the airwaves.

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5 thoughts on “Fox News Doesn’t Understand How Academia Works

  1. Journalist could look on a local universities web page on the communications page where it lists their experts. Or check the sources and people cited in the book and ask them.

    1. Well of course they could, but let’s not get carried away asking them to do actual journalism and research.

      Sarcasm aside, the process I have described is not a foreign one at all to news orgs and I do think we should take some of the responsibility in matters like this.

      1. but how do we bear the burden of this if you don’t expect them to do research? what are we to do send our CV’s to all the news outlets?

        I think that there is a fundamental and systematic devaluing of 1) academia, coupled with the rise of anti-intellectualism and 2) a state of deep fear and suspicion of the academic study of religion. These twin ideologies present such a challenge that I am not sure how would we even get scholarly voices on the program to provide informed responses?

        I am fine with bearing responsibility but I am curious what should I do to respond?

        1. I think your concern is valid and this I why I think this should be happening through organizations like SBL, AAR, etc. that have the reach and could easily gain the national recognition for an undertaking like this. Individual scholars sending CVs to news orgs, as you know, would be a fruitless endeavor. But SBL and AAR can begin to build relationships with television media, print media, online media so that when something comes up the reporters/editors know someone they can contact to get put in touch with an appropriate expert.

          Further, I think this type of work can be fostered on the local level too with departments taking it upon themselves to build these same type of relationships with their local news orgs and papers. Get to know their religion editor or someone else so that when they want to report on a story they feel comfortable talking to a local university professor because they know where to start to find someone to talk to.

          At the end of the day, we may never win over places like Fox News, Drudge, etc. because of the rise of anti-intellectualism and fear of the academic study of religion that you point out, but there is a whole world outside of these news groups and, if we do our job well, then at some point, we likely will begin to influence even groups like this. It may not mean that our work becomes mainstream knowledge or that we could expect to go on Fox News and have a normal academic discussion about a topic, but it may mean that we get invited on in the first place and get help, little by little, in educating others.

  2. Hmmm. Why do I get the feeling that the same incredulous attitude would not be displayed by FOX News interviewers toward a Christian author that penned a historical and cultural analysis of Islam?

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