Was Martin Bashir Unusually Hard on Rob Bell?

The interview:

I initially tweeted that this is how “journalism should be done,” a claim which incited some grumbling among those who think that Bashir was unduly harsh on Bell.  Word went around that Bashir attends Tim Keller’s church in New York City, which was used to undermine his credibility as a journalist.  Rather than attempting to get at the facts of Bell’s position and thoughts, Bashir was simply orchestrating a sophisticated hit job.

If you want to understand Bashir, his interview with Paul Edwards is important listening.  In it, he explains that his loyalty as a journalist is to the truth and that he felt as though other interviewers hadn’t done much to get at the truth of Bell’s positions.  Additionally, he verifies that he does attend Keller’s church, but argues that it has no bearing on the way he does his job.

I won’t go line-by-line through his interview with Bell, but two moments stand out.  First, his opening question is an obvious false dilemma that is clearly designed simply to get Bell to say something interesting.  In fact, it’s a similar question to that which George Stephanopolous asked when he mentioned Japan (“Why would God allow this suffering to exist?”) which makes me think that the publicists actually sent that subject as a current events hook to sell the book.

Second, Bashir’s mildly sarcastic “That’s true, isn’t it?” seems intentionally designed to provoke Bell into actually engaging the questions rather than offering the stump speech.  He could say, “Is that true?” but that wouldn’t draw Bell out of his comfort zone, which is what he has to do to get beyond Bell’s well-rehearsed lines.

But better to let Bashir’s work speak for itself.  Specifically, this interview with media mogul Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs:

In case you didn’t catch it, here are some of Bashir’s finer moments in the interview:

  • “Some people might think that’s a form of megalomania.”
  • “Is there anything you would not promote?  Would you do Diddy Dog Food?”
  • See the entire exchange about Biggy Smalls and Tupac.
  • “How does a hard-core, ganster rapper, hip-hop producer enter middle age?…But you can’t be 20 anymore.”
  • “You’ve talked about being someone that kids want to emulate, yet aren’t you setting a bad example by being a man with multiple children with multiple mothers?”
  • “Do you think it was appropriate to buy your sixteen year old son a Maybach car?…Do you think that was a valuable lesson for a child to learn?”

But the kicker comes at the end (starting about 9:00), where Diddy acknowledges Bashir’s masterful interviewing skills.  The language is colorful, so I won’t spell it out.  But I’ll say this:  Diddy pays Bashir respect for his ability and attempts at getting to the human beneath the canned and rehearsed answers.

Was Bashir hard on Bell?  Yes.  And given Bashir’s desire to find the truth about people, that shouldn’t be all that surprising or dismaying.  Bell doesn’t seem to want to give straight answers, presumably because he thinks they’ll kill the conversation.  Match that up with a reporter whose own standards force him to relentlessly pursue the truth and sparks were bound to fly.

I could speculate about what’s behind the counterreaction against Bashir, but that would be as helpful as speculating about the ways in which we think his religious “agenda” drove the interview–in short, it isn’t.  The man’s insistence on his own sincerity and his body of work speak for themselves.  While we might think he’s being overly critical of a theological nemesis, that just seems to be the way the guy rolls when his subjects obfuscate or evade.

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  • http://bensimpson.squarespace.com Ben Simpson

    Was he too hard on Bell? Absolutely not. In fact, when I saw this interview I was relieved to finally see a reporter who knew a thing or two about Christianity. While I do not have data to back this claim at the moment, my impression of many of the members of the media is that they have little knowledge of religion as a human phenomenon, and therefore coverage of religion is often woefully lacking the sufficient nuance that any tradition, Christianity or otherwise, deserves.

    I was glad to see someone press Bell with theological and historical questions. Bell is not excused from these concerns simply because he is a pastor dealing with “real people.” It is his responsibility to know the tradition and to create the space for it to bear weight in our time.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      +1. Well said, Ben. I couldn’t agree more.

    • peter choi

      i totally agree as well. however, there is plenty of proof about the media’s lack of knowledge about religion – in fact there’s an entire (excellent) blog dedicated to it – getreligion.org

      • Matthew Lee Anderson

        Peter, also a great point. And getreligion is the best.

  • http://www.ophastings.com Pat Hastings

    I’m not in disagreement with you, but I do think Bashir could’ve prodded Bell to elaborate more, instead of challenging him so directly. Bashir might be right on, but this interview doesn’t help me learn much more about who Rob Bell is or what he thinks. Instead, it just reinforced my pre-existing opinions without really giving me any new information.

    That said, I definitely prefer to see a journalist err on being too tough instead of too easy.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Pat, I kind of suspect that part of Bashir’s tactic is making his guests get outside of where they’re comfortable. Clarifying questions might be preferable, but what if the interviewer knows up front that his interviewee probably doesn’t want to answer questions directly?

      • http://www.ophastings.com Pat Hastings

        Well, Bell might not be comfortable clarifying either. For example, after Bell said, “What we do in life matters” I’d like Bashir to ask “What matters? What should we do?” Maybe Bell says things about loving others, but whatever he says, Bashir can ask “But are you saying if I don’t those things at all, or do the opposite of those things, then I’ll still go to Heaven anyway?”

        I still appreciated the interview, but I think I learned a lot more about Bashir than about Bell in it.

        • Matthew Lee Anderson

          Pat, I think that’s a very fair point.

  • Alan Molineaux

    He just wasn’t very effective at getting to the point of
    The question. Perhaps that’s what happens
    When you have already made your mind up.

  • http://matthewjmiller.jottit.com Matt

    As you acknowledge, Bashir’s first question was a false dilemma. But I didn’t interpret either the false dilemma or the “That’s true, isn’t it?” in the same way Mr. Anderson did. Rather than being charitable attempts to get Bell outside his comfort zone, these moves sounded to me like rhetorical thuggery–trying to force Bell into having the conversation on Bashir’s terms. “Is it this, or is it that? Answer!” I’m with Pat in thinking that prodding Bell to clarify would have been a better way to get him to clarify, rather than trying to force him to answer a false dilemma. Mind you, I don’t think Bell came across any better–he was incoherent at best, even evasive. His answer to the Japan question really didn’t sound like that of a guy who just wrote a book about this stuff! But especially since Bashir has some theological knowledge (a fact I didn’t know when I saw the clip) that false dilemma really seems like an act of rhetorical violence. But maybe I’m just unused to mainstream media interviewing styles–I never watch TV news shows.

    On the other hand, the Diddy piece transcends “news” to become a small and terrifying character sketch. I give Bashir full credit for that. Great interview.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      @Matt,

      I’m not sure I think “rhetorical violence” is a fair way of describing what happened. Do you think it’s really plausible that Bell would have answered hard, clarifying questions with clarity? Having read his book, I think that answer is a resounding “no.” And setting up a strong antithesis is one way to prod obscure or fuzzy thinkers to be more clear.

      For instance, if I was in a classroom and had a student who was as fuzzy as Bell is, I would put forward a false dilemma and make them pick–or split the difference and tell me why, or reject the false dilemma and tell me why. In each case, though, I gain more clarity about what the student actually thinks, and actually help the student gain clarity about what they actually think. Asking them, “Well, what do you mean?” *may* bring more clarity–but probably it will simply muddy the waters more.

      I realize this isn’t a classroom–but Bashir’s job is to bring Bell to a point of clarity about what he does and does not believe, for our sake as the viewers. And I think in this case, the stronger way of putting things doesn’t seem violent at all (had Bell answered the questions, I suspect Bashir wouldn’t have repeated them).

      Glad you liked the Diddy piece. I did think it was fascinating viewing. And I do wish that Bashir would have had more than 7 minutes with Bell.

      matt

      • http://matthewjmiller.jottit.com Matt

        You make an intriguing case for the pedagogical value of the false dilemma. It’s not a technique I could have imagined being used effectively, but then I’m in English–a relatively “fuzzy” discipline. I’ll be pondering that technique now.

        That said, I’m not sure the analogy of the classroom really works for this situation. You’re clearly right that Bell isn’t in the clarifying game. And maybe Bashir knew that. But in the public square I think it’s only fair for the journalist to assume–at least initially–that his interviewee has something to say that doesn’t require methods you would use on an undergraduate. Bell probably demonstrates that Bashir was justified in beginning with a stab at over-clarifying, but I’m not sure even Bashir’s aggressive questioning succeeded in getting Bell to clarify. The interview played to me like two people talking past each other. Of course, that may imply that Bashir’s techniques weren’t aggressive enough! But whatever the intentions of either man, all I get from the interview is over-simple questions responded to by hazy rhetoric. No clarity–which may be Bell’s fault alone, or may not.

        • Matthew Lee Anderson

          Matt,

          Thanks for the kind compliment. I agree that there’s a disanalogy here and that Bell isn’t in the clarifying game. But Bashir–unlike other journalists–almost certainly knew that. In fact, one of the things he says in his interview with Paul Edwards is that it was very clear to him that the other interviewers hadn’t done any homework beforehand. He certainly did, which is why I think I’m more sympathetic to the stronger tone straight out of the gate.

          I totally agree that the conversation actually didn’t bring clarity, except maybe regarding the extent to which Bell is willing to maintain obscurity on these matters, for whatever that’s worth (and I’m not sure it’s worth much).

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/iHisBeloved iHisBeloved

  • http://Bensonian.org Christopher Benson

    I can tell you from my graduate training in journalism that Martin Bashir’s interview is NOT how journalism should be done, as my friend Bryce, a Rhetoric Instructor, notes in his content analysis:

    Thank you for empirically demonstrating that television is woefully inadequate as a medium for carrying on serious theological discussion.

    First off, Martin Bashir needs a refresher course in logical fallacies. His opening question is a classic case of a false dilemma: “Either God is all-powerful and doesn’t care, or cares and isn’t all-powerful, which is it?” Bashir is rehearsing the text-book philosophical problem of evil which is overturned by a more careful consideration of the definition of caring. Turns out that God’s love and caring just might included suffering and evil as part of the penultimate story–a story wherein love does indeed win in the end. Excluded premise? God is sovereign and cares. These aren’t exclusive propositions. But, then, consideration of this alternative would require patience and thoughtfulness, both of which are inimical to television’s constraints.

    Bell answers with a profession of trust in God’s sympathy. Bashir then restates the either/or question curiously changing the first horn of the supposed dilemma: “which is it, God cares and is sovereign, or God cares and isn’t” Stop the tape…I mean digital transmission! What just happened? Bashir escaped his false dilemma in reply to Bell’s articulation of God’s sympathy (hidden premise, God is both sovereign and cares) yet gets to come across as though he is still in the driver’s seat? As though he were the thoughtful and critical one? Once again, television and it’s soundbyte-favoring dynamic doesn’t afford us the time and patience to thoughtfully and critically engage the conversation, so Bashir slips by unscathed.

    Next, Bashir repeats the same question about 5 times “is a person’s response to the gospel irrelevant in this life.” A question which Bell wisely answers “yes, terribly” and then tries to explain the nuance of his view. Bell may be wrong. He may be flirting with universalism. But, he does mention there is an entire chapter on hell and at least appears to suggest there are eternal consequences for not believing (eventually) in Christ. This is a subtle view and it may not be untrue. Bashir seemed totally incapable or unwilling to enter the nuance, to ask the relevant question and so came a across as brow-beating with this black-and-white, simplistic, false dilemma-foisting mindset, hopscotching to other reviewer’s critical reviews as soon as his own lack of nuance becomes painfully obvious. He sadly gets to ride the wave of television’s penchant for impression rather than substance. A transcript of this discussion would reveal a different picture than the one displayed by the boob tube.

    To be fair, Bashir asks some relevant and important questions: “Why Origin and not Arius”? But, to rightly answer this would require time and space–the enemies of the format once again. Turns out Arius on the nature of Christ and Origin on the eventual destiny of all people are not comparable. Serious discussion would ask for a more critical appraisal of the quite different nature of the questions at hand for Origin and Arius. To put this plainly, Arius has no place within the pale of orthodoxy because he questions the divinity of the person of Christ. Origin has a contested place, one that is flirting with the margins, but may articulate an important minority report from the fringes regarding the nature and scope of the work of Christ (who Origin never doubts is divine). Bashir needs logic again: this time to consider what a category mistake is.

    Again, thanks for posting. This is a fabulous case study in the way television is hostile to serious thought. Bell’s palpable frustration throughout the interview was appropriate. Bell may be wrong. A thoughtful critique, however, would require a more nuanced platform. I can’t say it’s clear from this interview whether he has articulated a helpful discussion of these matters or if he is guilty of heresy. I suppose only a careful reading of the book will tell.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      One man’s “nuance” is, apparently, another’s obfuscation.

  • BashirEqualsHack

    The reason Bashir was “successful” in this so called interview (I call it an ambush using the power of the media) is that people enjoy judging and labeling amd Bashir is a master at that. Was he unbiased and objective as a journalist should be? No. Sure, he knows the American Evangelical movement’s theology backwards and forwards. Whether he has embraced it as his own belief system is another matter. I personally don’t believe Bashir is a saved person because his journalism is rife with unethical practices. Then again, it’s not my place to judge; Bashir will answer one day. When that day comes, I wouldn’t want to be him.

    Bashir-watchers know all about Bashir’s Andrew Breitbart techniques. Indeed, he invented them. Watch…

    http://www.bashir-goldston.webs.com

    Viewed side-by-side, it’s easy to see why the outtakes of Bashir’s interview with Michael Jackson were a key component in Mr. Jackson’s acquittal. The jurors saw, as the public did not, Bashir’s deceit and duplicity. Bashir told Paul Edwards that his career as a journalist has been “injured” by his claimed pursuit of the truth. Do you see the truth in Bashir’s documentary when compared to the outtakes?

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Yes, I’m familiar with the Jackson video controversy. Having not seen the full documentary, I have no grounds to judge either side. However, I’m not sure such outtakes demonstrate a perniciousness on Bashir’s side. At least, it’s not obvious that they do without some sort of prior judgment about Bashir’s nefarious character.

      matt

  • BashirEqualsHack

    Christopher Benson wrote: I can tell you from my graduate training in journalism that Martin Bashir’s interview is NOT how journalism should be done, as my friend Bryce, a Rhetoric Instructor, notes in his content analysis.

    I couldn’t agree more. There should be a way to drive joooornalists like Bashir out of the profession. Sadly, there isn’t. Bashir brings shame to good journalists everywhere.

  • Dudethinggus

    Maybe you should do some real journalism before you make assumptions about how journalism should be done. Graduate training hardly qualifies you as the judge of all things journalism. Different situations call for different approaches. There are no defined “rules” for how an interview is conducted. It is all subjective.

    Maybe you should go watch the video again, this time with both eyes open so you can perceive the depth in Bashir’s intentions.

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