Are You Buying It?

Picture 11In 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

As The New York Times phrased it a couple days after the interview:

Picture 12Or, as Aslan himself is quoted as saying in that same Times article:

Picture 14Well, 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…) 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.

6 Replies to “Are You Buying It?”

  1. Your critical thinking skills are lacking if you don’t see who the bad guy is here, if you’re trying to create some sort of false equivalence. Taking advantage of a deceitful media behemoth to help sell a scholarly work is by no means a cynical act. It’s completely up to Fox anchors to conduct themselves as actual journalists. Instead they continually asked him absolutely moronic questions that imply that their viewers are idiots, and that all books on all subjects are by nature “attacks” and that one shouldn’t write a book about Jesus the man unless they subscribe to Christianity (or more accurately, reflecting the xenophobic hate that spews from Fox, are not a Muslim).

    Aslan may profit from Fox News being a horribly misrepresented blemish on American journalism that makes sane people gag a little every time one of their viewers claims it’s “balanced,” but it was still a terrible, base, anti-intellectual, anti-American, anti-freedom-of-expression interview and anyone who could watch it earnestly “siding” with the interviewer would have to be completely devoid of all critical thinking and self-awareness. It’s like roasting your marshmallows on Satan’s bonfire — handy, why not, but Satan is still a bad dude.

  2. Not sure I really get your point; the post is merely trying to direct readers to consider that this was a moment in which each side were quite effectively selling something, undoubtedly to different audiences (that you’re not buying FOX’s narrative is evident; that others do buy it ought to be equally evident from their annual profits and viewership numbers). Also, I did not imply any cynicism whatsoever–it was a strategic appearance, from his agent’s point of view, no doubt, since the goal of such an interview was PR and sales–especially for anyone who has the opinion of FOX that you’ve expressed, for why else would one appear there? But that’s what a book tour is all about, for one never knows where the next sale is coming from, of course. So seeing this episode for what it is–a moment of global capitalism–strikes me as a healthy dose of critical thinking.

  3. I would simply respectfully point out that you are not “seeing this episode for what it IS.” You are offering an interpretation of the events. I’m sure that the IS of the situation is far more complex. Undoubtedly, Aslan wanted to sell books. I think that reducing it to that is vastly removing the nuance from the actual situation, though.

  4. I’ll simply note in reply that you used the all uppercase present tense verb, not I — hence you’re deeply embedded in interpretive activity as well. That is, you imply in your comment that my post is somehow claiming that I have offered some sort of final or definitive analysis. You’ll note that I made no such claim. Observing that this is a moment of global capitalism obviously doesn’t preclude observing all sorts of other things that this episode is, correct? I noted some of them in the opening to my post, in fact–there’s plenty of people online offering those other analyses, which suggested to me that I need not worry about furthering those debates. After all, given various other frames of analysis it surely is innumerable things. It happens to strike me, however, that there are implications to which frame of analysis one adopts–for instance, we could, of course, elect to view this episode in terms of the hairstyles of the two participants–a completely legitimate frame of reference, despite how flippant the example may seem, to plenty of people who work in the mass media, no doubt. But I’d ask what the implications of adopting that frame of reference would be or what sorts of questions will be precluded from the outset if that’s the narrative that we drop onto this affair? So it seems to me that until we discuss the shared economic setting of this exchange, the medium that allowed us all to even know it happened, the we have created the impression that a battle of disembodied ideas was taking place.

  5. Indeed, I certainly don’t hold any illusions that I stand aside from interpretation. While I never personally got that impression (of a battle of disembodied ideas taking place) from the discussions that have flowed from the interview, I certainly see how that impression could be given and the point about the economic realities is indeed worth taking into account. But, to be honest, I never had the impression that discussion of the economic motives was being underplayed. In the discussions I was seeing, that was already a major talking point, so it’s entirely possible that we were simply viewing different discussions. I do think, however, that you also face the same situation, yes, that by emphasizing the economic aspect to the exclusion of the other aspects (even though you explain after the fact that you were simply omitting due to oversaturation), you also run the very same risk of giving an impression that this was all about money and readership, which I don’t think it is. I’m not saying that you think it is either, but if the issue is one of giving a potentially misleading impression by emphasizing one aspect over another, don’t you then run the same risk?
    You are correct that depending on our circle of interest, we could analyze it by any criterion (hairstyle, mole count, age of oldest relative on the mother’s side twice removed). I suppose, through my own interpretive lens of what stands out as significant in this issue, it simply seems to me that there are things that are in the same ballpark of importance as audience-building. Aslan surely was not merely putting on an act and surely the issues that he was addressing are actually important to him and to the culture more broadly. Now, did that also result in him gaining more publicity and book sales? Did that also result in Fox bolstering its own community and narrative? Did everyone involved know that it would be a somewhat contentious discussion and participate anyway? Surely the answer to all of these is yes in varying degrees. I’m not at all arguing with your analysis of the importance of the economic issues involved here. I suppose I just had a similar response to your post as you had to what you saw as myopic discussions of this as solely an ideological issue. Carry on. 😉 (P.S. – the only reason I used all uppercase is because I have no option to use italics)

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