Fox News Punks Bill O’Reilly

(Lauren Green and Reza Aslan | Source: Fox News)

By now everyone has heard about what happened when Reza Aslan, author of Zealot, was interviewed by Fox News’ Lauren Green. Aslan’s book is an account of the historic Jesus and had been doing brisk business so Aslan’s was on a media tour. It so happens Fox network Bill O’Reilly was soon to release his own book on Jesus, so the network was eager for an interview. As he told reporters afterwards, Aslan knew it wouldn’t be an ordinary interview.

The ironic backstory behind what Buzzfeed called the most embarrassing interview ever.

He intended to push back if Fox pushed him.

Good plan: Green introduced Aslan as “a former Christian convert who returned to Islam” and was now questioning the core tenants of Christianity. She then snarked at Aslan: “I want to clarify: you’re a Muslim. So why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

Aslan responded by his credentials and research, then praised his mostly Christian family (including a brother-in-law who leads an evangelical church) and then this Muslim declared that Christianity was a force for good and the “greatest religion in the world.”

You can read more here, but the interview would go seriously off the rails when Green repeatedly demanded Aslan admit Muslims are biased against Christians, leading to her hilarious declaration that a Muslim writing about Jesus made as much sense as a Democrat writing favorably about Ronald Reagan (Green clearly has never heard of the late lefty historian John Patrick Diggins). Fox decided to keep the interview off the air and dump it on their webpage with the provocative headline “Zealot author answers critics.”

That might have ended it, until the Buzzfeed reposted the Aslan/Green video with the lead “Is this the most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done?” To date, Buzzfeed’s re-post has received 5.5 million hits, with millions more coming from other sources (including nearly 3 million YouTube hits) and by the second week of August the interview had more than 10 million hits.

Which kept on feeding the buzz about Zealot: within weeks, sales of both print and ebook editions ensured Aslan’s book will be one the top sellers of 2013.

The furor is finally settling but expect to hear about Aslan again a few weeks when Bill O’Reilly’s new book, Killing Jesus, is released in September. O’Reilly’s follow-up to his bestsellers Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy was supposed to be a victory lap for the Fox News star but now O’Reilly got scooped big-time by a rival bestseller on the same topic. O’Reilly can thank the ham-handed tactics of his own network for ruining his book launch.

To understand how Fox screwed this up, consider a history of mass media in four phrases: Yellow Journalism, Broadcasting, Narrow Casting and Feed-Buzz.

The first revolutionized the newspaper business; the second (taken from an agricultural term for planting seeds) revolutionized how the news was disseminated. The practice of “narrow casting” the news been around for a while but the genius of Fox News was to create niche markets for news, which included savaging Muslims even when it served no real news purpose, thus achieving record ratings and profits.

 

But while Fox was perfecting that approach, the internet and social media spawned a new kind of news coverage, in which readers and viewers became their own editors through sharing content; so-called viral videos are the best known example of how this works. Some termed this process “feed-buzz,” a term chiroptologists use to describe how an individual bat can spot food and alert a colony of thousands.

Which brings us to Buzzfeed, the agent provocateur of this brave new media. It may be the hottest news website around, but traditionalists still get jarred by its layouts of cute cat photos running next to a sober analysis of the Farm Bill, or a deft political analysis comparing the Senate filibuster to the teen cliques in Mean Girls.

Buzzfeed aside, Fox News became the laughingstock of the new media thanks largely to Green, who has covered Muslims in America for the network since mid-90s. Back then she was famous for her “Muslims invading small town America” stories.

Green would infuriate American Muslims in 2008 when she appeared on Mike Huckabee’s program to discuss the “war on Christmas.” In that broadcast, Green declared that hordes of “Islamist immigrants” were behind efforts to remove Nativity scenes in public schools—and those comment were extremely offensive to Muslims who revere the image of Mary.

Islam 101 holds that the Virgin Mary is the holiest woman in the faith: Mary even has a whole chapter named for her in the Quran and all images of Mary are held holy—yet Green, who is the network’s Islam expert, didn’t know that.

Aslan himself was prepared for his interview thanks to a video of Green speaking at Princeton last year where she talked about her interview techniques and said Muslims should be ready to “answer the critics of their faith” and if they didn’t respond, they risked “appearing stupid.”

Perhaps the real lesson here is that future Fox interviewees should do their homework, like Aslan did, to create still more entertaining videos because as dozens of “feed-buzzes” taken from Fox has proven, the network ain’t hiring smarter reporters anytime soon.

 

Peter Lindstrom is a political consultant and researcher. He lives in Washington, D.C.