Lights, camera, exploitation

Media | Falwell says he "should have known" 60 Minutes' segment on Christians and Israel would be a hatchet job, but that is no excuse for shoddy, bigoted journalism

Issue: "GOP: No room for error," Oct. 19, 2002

Last week yielded more anti-Christian hysteria on some of the nation's editorial pages. The Washington Post was shocked, shocked, that Jerry Falwell, on the Oct. 6 CBS show 60 Minutes, called Muhammad "a terrorist."

News flash: For centuries Christian ministers have strongly opposed Islam. Jonathan Edwards, often called America's leading thinker, attacked Muhammad's "pretences to intercourse with heaven, and his success in rapine, murder, and violence." Ah, but Edwards wrote that 250 years ago; haven't we learned since then? Maybe. Ibn Warraq's recent scholarly book The Quest for the Historical Muhammad shows how little we still know. The Gospels were written down while eyewitnesses to Christ's time on earth were still alive. The Quran wasn't written down until generations after Muhammad's death, and many hadith (semi-canonical stories of Muhammad's life) are still in dispute.

Since orthodox Muslims view Muhammad as sinless, many Muslim newspapers attacked Mr. Falwell's undiplomatic remarks. Yet, calling Muhammad a terrorist or a non-terrorist takes us equally beyond historical data into opinion. In this country we vibrantly debate Christ and His legacy; can we not do the same with Muhammad? Because so many Muslim countries suppress freedom of speech and freedom of religion, must the United States also? Jerry Falwell spoke bluntly, but he is a plain-spoken Baptist preacher, not a diplomat. With him, what you see is what you get.

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My impression of 60 Minutes, and Bob Simon in particular, is different. From what I've seen close-up, Mr. Simon is a bigot. Here's a personal note: Because of political activities and my colorful growing-up period, a lot of TV networks have done profiles of me. NBC, CNN, and the CBS Evening News were all fair; not positive, but fair, and that was fine. 60 Minutes was a hatchet job. Mr. Simon sneered his way through four hours of interviews, and the producer did not keep his promise not to run a scavenger hunt for exploitable side comments. The piece was so loaded that the week after it was televised Dan Rather, to avert a potential libel suit, read a semi-apology concerning one outrageous distortion.

Columnist Jonah Goldberg described well this month's distortion: "60 Minutes, because of its ongoing mission to show Christian conservatives as the downfall of human civilization, portrayed evangelical supporters of Israel as caricatures, incapable of multidimensional thought." The program segment was about Christians and Israel, not Islam, but Mr. Simon in passing asked Jerry Falwell if he thought Muhammad approved of violence, and Mr. Falwell fell into the trap. CBS then promoted 60 Minutes with the "terrorist" soundbite, in full knowledge that it was incidental to the thrust of the piece. The evident goal: Hype the program, build the audience, and never mind the lack of context.

Mr. Falwell told WORLD on Oct. 9, "I should have known" that CBS would use his answer "to stir up conflict and animosity." He reported that Mr. Simon had called him back once the uproar began, fishing for more, and that he had complained about CBS extracting from 1 1/2 hours of interview tape that divisive side remark. "I believe you exploited me and took advantage of me as a person," he told Mr. Simon, who quickly got off the phone. -with reporting by Edward E. Plowman

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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