Lauren Green’s interview with Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth will live forever in college courses in both a positive and negative way.
The negative, of course, is how to begin an agenda-laden interview and then awkwardly and totally lose control.
I’ve been a PR director in higher education for 35 years. I’ve known professors of every type. Some of my best friends are scholars. Most of them have Ph.Ds. Some are cool and some are social misfits.
I’ve also dealt with journalists of all ages, types and backgrounds. And I started my career as a journalist.
So let’s begin with the fact that Green’s question about why a Muslim would want to write a book about Jesus is a fair one. “Why” is always a first question. On a recent Fresh Air episode Terry Gross asked the same question but she allowed Aslan to answer. He explained that he grew up a Muslim, turned to Christianity, then returned to the Muslim faith. Gross’ question and Aslan’s answer set the tone for a substantive interview that enabled Aslan to talk about Roman history, politics, insurrection and the man responsible for creating the revolution.
Green didn’t allow that and it became clear that there was an agenda. She continued to ask how he, a Muslim, could presume to write about Jesus.
Aslan explained that he has a Ph.D in religious studies and has studied and taught it for 20 years. It was a clear, cool explanation that could have been addressed to a confused high school student. It was clear that with each stumbling question, Green was becoming frustrated and angry, not a good thing when you’re a journalist.
When Green pointed out that many scholars disagreed with Aslan’s premise about Jesus, Aslan almost gleefully answered that this was what scholarly debate is all about. He is, of course, correct. I’ve seen scholars debate. Yes, they can get heated, sometimes about seemingly small things, but debate is at the core of all scholarship and always has been.
Green’s most embarrassing moment as a journalist should have been when she accused Aslan of hiding the fact that he is a Muslim. Aslan calmly zeroed in with a clear, concise attack (and yes, I believe he knew exactly what he was doing), when he pointed out that he states his religion on page two of Zealot and that he has made it clear in every interview he’s ever done, challenging her to find one in which he has not stated it.
That effectively ended the interview, making it painfully clear that this professional journalist had not even opened the book and that her staff/producers had done no preparatory research.
The Green/Aslan interview will be taught in college courses for years to come. Journalism professors will use Green as an example of what not to do in an interview, especially when you lose control of it. PR professors will point to Aslan as a prime example of the importance of staying composed and professional while under fire and the importance of reiterating key points (“I have a PhD. . . . I am a scholar . . . I write about all religions”).
In the end, the goal of attacking a scholar on the basis of his faith and staying with an agenda at the expense of a true conversation did five things on an international scale:
-it damaged the interviewer’s credibility;
-it made a scholar a celebrity;
-it instantly drove Zealot to number one on the bestseller lists;
-it created a renewed discussion about religion and scholarship;
-it made a lasting contribution to the teaching of journalism and public relations.