Fox News' response to the uproar over its religious correspondent's interview with author Reza Aslan is a revealing example of how the network handles criticism by either attacking or ignoring it, and raises questions about how Howard Kurtz, Fox's new media critic, will fit into that pattern.
Aslan, the author of the new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, was the subject of a recent 10-minute interview on FoxNews.com. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat describes the interview and ensuing controversy in today's column:
Those minutes were spent with the interviewer, Lauren Green, asking Aslan to explain why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus -- with Aslan coolly emphasizing his credentials and the non-Islamic nature of his argument -- and then with Green asking variations on the Muslim question, to increasing offense and diminishing returns.
The video quickly went viral, turning Aslan into a culture-war icon, a martyr to Fox's biases ... and soon enough (as these things tend to go) a martyr with a No. 1 best seller.
As Douthat indicates, Fox was widely criticized for the interview, which was one of the major media stories of the week. It seemed like a perfect issue for Kurtz, the network's in-house media critic, to address.
Instead, on July 31, Fox responded to the criticism by hosting conservative activist and media critic Brent Bozell to defend the interview on the network's America Live. Bozell declared, "I'll be the first one to stand up and applaud Lauren Green for the question that she asked. It was the exact, correct question that needed to be asked." He went on to criticize Aslan's response to Green's suggestion of religious bias -- that he's a scholar of religions and his job is to write about religion -- as arrogant.
Some noted that rather than bringing in Bozell to discuss the controversial interview, Fox could have called on Kurtz. "Fox News has a media critic on its payroll, but Howard Kurtz was apparently unavailable," reported Huffington Post's Jack Mirkinson.
On Twitter, Politico media reporter Dylan Byers wrote that Kurtz responding to the Aslan interview would be a "pretty good test for his independence," but that he didn't think it would happen. Indeed, Kurtz, who said he was "excited to bring my independent brand of media criticism to Fox News" when he moved to the network after 15 years at CNN, has not weighed in on the Aslan controversy. On Sunday he appeared on the panel of Fox News Sunday to discuss a variety of political topics, but did not mention Aslan.
Meanwhile, the August 3 edition of Fox's current weekly media criticism show, Fox News Watch, did not address the Aslan interview. That program has consistently downplayed or ignored stories that are unfavorable to Fox News and its parent company.
Fox News Watch will soon be replaced with a new media criticism program hosted by Kurtz. But so far, we've seen little evidence that the new program will adopt a different tact on criticizing the network than the current iteration.