How One Man Defeated A Biased Interviewer

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 29, 2013 – 1:30 pm

I’ve seen a lot of biased, ill-informed, and journalistically lazy interviews through the years, and this one was one of the worst. But the author who was the target of the anchor’s ire stood up to her questions well—and, in part due to his deft handling of that interview, currently has Amazon’s top-selling book.

Writer Reza Aslan—a prolific author who holds a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion—appeared on the Fox News Channel to discuss his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Fox News anchor Lauren Green went into the interview clearly skeptical of the book—less for its content, about which she was clearly unfamiliar—but because Aslan is Muslim. And a Muslim writing about Jesus was just too much for her to take.

I haven’t read Aslan’s book; therefore, I’m unable to judge its content or objectivity. Perhaps Aslan’s critics have legitimate criticisms of his work. But Ms. Green’s agenda-driven questions didn’t shine a light on them in an illuminating manner.

Her entire premise was flawed, arguing that a Muslim couldn’t possibly write an objective history of Jesus. That’s a specious argument, one that would logically also preclude the possibility that a Christian could write fairly about Judaism. And although religion and race isn’t the same, her logical construct isn’t a far leap from suggesting that a white historian couldn’t write fairly about a black civil rights leader or that an African American couldn’t write about George Washington. Exploring a writer’s motivation is one thing; dismissing his work without careful inspection is quite another.

Instead of focusing on the book’s content and taking issue with specific points, Green read a series of quotes from people who didn’t like the book. But instead of relying on a neutral third party critic, the first quote came from…wait for it…! Get that? She may as well have said, “I’d like to read you a quote from an article written by someone who contributes to the same news organization for which I work. He magically has the same premise I do, and I’d like to use it to attack you.”

But the biggest jaw-dropper came at the end of the interview, when Green asked Aslan why he tried to hide his religious identify from the public. “It’s on page two of my book!” retorted a surprised Aslan, proving that Green hadn’t done even the slightest bit of research before their conversation.

Since this is primarily a media training blog, here are four lessons you can learn from Reza Aslan if you’re ever the target of a biased media interview.

1. He looked reasonable. No matter how offensive Ms. Green’s questions became, Aslan maintained the high ground and kept his cool. When challenged, Mr. Aslan described his bona fides and invited viewers to review his book’s 100 pages of end notes.  His reasonableness, contrasted with host’s badly prepared questions, made him look better the longer the interview continued.

2. He conceded the obvious. When Ms. Green confronted him by saying many scholars disagreed with his work, he didn’t deny the charge—he embraced it. Such is the nature of academic debate, he pointed out, before reminding Green that many scholars agreed with him, too.  

3. He corrected the anchor’s flawed premise. When the host asked Aslan “Why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?” he responded to that flabbergasting question calmly by saying, “Because it’s my job as an academic. I am a professor of religion…It’s unfair to assume that because of my particular faith background, that there is some agenda on this book.”

4. He pushed back—but not too quickly. After being asked the same question numerous times, Aslan politely pushed back, saying, “I think it’s strange that rather than debating the arguments of the book, we’re debating the right of the scholar to write it.”

In the end, Aslan proves a point I make frequently on this blog—that tough questions should be regarded as gifts that allow you to demonstrate your competence. His calm, competent handling of her loaded questions convinced many people that he deserved a fair hearing—as proven by landing at the top of Amazon’s bestsellers list.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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