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Was Martin Bashir Unusually Hard on Rob Bell?

March 17th, 2011 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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.