Many of us who came of age during the birth of New Media are reflexively defensive about the medium's journalistic credibility. We defy the outdated notion that real journalism is printed on paper or broadcast on TV screen. Quality journalism is as likely to be found on a blog as in a newspaper or in a web video as on a cable news channel. At least that's the theory.
The reality is that much of what passes for journalism on the Internet is substandard. A prime example can be found in both an interview on FoxNews.com online show Spirited Debate and the New Media responses to it.
Before we get to a clip of the show, let's look at some of the reactions. The Atlantic Wire says the "whole ordeal was embarrassing for Fox News" while Buzzfeed called it "The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done." "This Fox interview with Reza Aslan is absolutely demented (& he handled it with remarkable calm)" said The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum on Twitter. Wired’'s Steve Silberman called the interview "embarrassing" and Digg editorial director David Weiner said, "Please, please watch this if you haven't yet. It's amazing."
These critics are right about the interview -- it is a mess. But while these New Media journalists were snickering at FoxNews.com, they failed to notice that the person being interviewed was pulling one over on them by getting away with misrepresenting his credentials.
Here is a representative clip from the segment.
The first question by host Lauren Green on why a Muslim would want to write about Jesus isn't as out of line as the Fox critics seem to think. It's a fair question -- a softball question -- that allows the interviewee to explain away any apparent bias. But Green should have moved on after asking it and not made Aslan's religious background the primary focus of the interview. More importantly, if she had been better prepared she could have called Aslan out for at least one blatant and seemingly undeniable untruth.
After being asked the first question by Green, Aslan responds:
Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim. So it's not that I'm just some Muslim writing about Jesus I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions." Later in the video he says it's his job as a "professor of religion including the New Testament. That's what I do for a living, actually." And to make sure we get the point, he later adds, "I am a historian. I am a PhD in the history of religions.
At this point, Green should have stopped him and asked him to clarify since he appears to be misrepresenting his credentials.
For starters, he does not have a PhD in the history of religions. Aslan has four degrees: a Bachelors of Religious Studies from Santa Clara University; a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School; a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa; and a PhD in sociology of religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara (his dissertation was on "Global Jihadism: a transnational social movement").
Why would Aslan claim he has a PhD in history when his degree is in sociology? Does he not understand the difference between the two fields of study?
Aslan also claims that he has a degree in the New Testament. But is this true? Santa Clara doesn't offer a degree in the New Testament so he can't be talking about his Bachelors. Perhaps he is referring to the Master's of Theological Studies degree he earned from Harvard Divinity School in 1999. That school does offer an "area of focus" in "New Testament and Early Christianity." Is Aslan claiming this was his degree's area of focus at Harvard? (If so, this would make his claim about having a "degree in New Testament" misleading, at best.)
While this is a possibility, it raises the question of how -- armed with only a Master's degree with a focus on the New Testament -- he became the first full-time professor of Islam in the history of the state of Iowa. According to his own bio, in August of 2000, Aslan was named Visiting Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Iowa. While there he "taught courses in Introduction to Islam, Gender and Human Rights, and Religion and Politics in the Middle East, as well as supervising theses in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the Women’s Movement in Iran, and Gender Violence Laws in Pakistan."
Why would Iowa hire someone with an MTS focused on the New Testament to teach only classes on Islam?
The same bio notes that in 2003, "Aslan left his post at the University of Iowa to concentrate full-time on writing." From there he became a fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy and then moved to the University of California at Riverside, where he is an associate professor of creative writing. He is also a visiting professor at Drew University, where he has taught "Religion and Politics in the New Middle East" and a course "on the art of protest in the Middle East, examining protest literature, film, art and music."
When exactly has Aslan taught classes on the New Testament? And as a scholar, has he published peer-reviewed academic articles on Jesus?
Aslan's book should not be dismissed because it was written by a Muslim. But in making untrue claims about his credentials he raises questions about his credibility. It also raises the question of how often so-called experts and authorities with no real expertise or authority on a subject are presented by New Media outlets as representative "scholars."
Maybe if these journalists spent less time mocking the gaffes of their competitors and more time vetting the so-called "experts" we wouldn't have to listen to people snicker about the credibility of online media.
Addendum: Before anyone asks, let me clarify why I think the misrepresentation is significant. Aslan is not presenting himself as an "amateur historian" like David McCullough; he is claiming to be an academic historian with a doctorate degree in history. Most academic historians as well as academic sociologists would take offense at the idea that a "sociology of religions" degree and a "history of religions" degree are interchangeable.