In the post-game commentary about how terribly author Reza Aslan was treated in that online FOX News interview, in the rush by scholars of religion on Facebook to identify with a misunderstood scholar just trying to do his job, and in the backlash now coming out against the way that he authorized himself by trotting out his degrees, one thing seems to be lost: this was a great moment for global capitalism. After all, a book tour (not the thing most scholars ever set out upon, by the way) is designed to do nothing else but sell, and so the interview was just one more moment in a marketing plan. I’m not criticizing it, since many of us have books we hope to sell, but suggesting that we’ve missed the point if we fail to remember that publicity is all both sides in that dance are going for (either to sell more ads on TV or the web or more books on amazon.com).
As The New York Times phrased it a couple days after the interview:
Well, that’s not quite accurate, for one does purchase it: at the price of people thinking that all this was actually about the content, thereby failing to see that pretty much only the form matters (at least two of which were present in that interview: lefty academic smarty pants gets a smackdown by fair and balanced reporter out to protect America or self-assured and objective scholar stands up to evil media empire). Controversy sells, not as well as sex perhaps, and the 24 hour cable news cycle knows how to create and benefit from controversy — and apparently so do authors and book agents.
So the question is: Are you buying it? For overlooking that marketing and sales was all that exchange was about (Aside: as of this writing, 4,457,525 have seen the clip — err., the ads — on Buzzfeed.com…) suggests to me that, at the end of the day, the price all those outraged scholars on Facebook are paying is the demise of their own critical thinking skills. (After all, the mass media is in the business of selling viewers’ or subscribers’ attention spans to advertisers, right?) For how this episode is different from any other faux cable news crisis designed to keep your eyeballs glued to the screen (whether TV or computer), is rather difficult for me to see.
Update: August 3, 2013
Read the follow-up post.