The Pleasures and Perils of Talking to the Media
"Judas was a raw amateur compared to you and your fellow contributors to that Satanic travesty, The Real Jesus Christ .... May God have mercy on your soul."
Anyone who has been involved with the media will be familiar with this kind of hate mail, but it is difficult not to find it shocking when it arrives. These words were addressed to me in an e-mail received just after the first airing of a television program on the British network television station Channel 4 at Christmas 1999. The other contributors were an interesting mix of individuals of different views and different backgrounds, but all of whom are in their own ways controversial: John Dominic Crossan, Robert Eisenmann, Michael Goulder, Hyam Maccoby and Geza Vermes. My role was, I think, to be the younger face among men all old enough to be my father, some my grandfather. The director told me that he wanted to include one scholar at least who was a bit younger. But with youth comes naïveté. The Real Jesus Christ taught me some useful lessons about enthusiasm, trust and watching what you say.
One of the things I had not realized before being interviewed in a trendy London art gallery for The Real Jesus Christ was the importance of mastering the self-contained one-liner. Words referring back to things you have previously said, to explanations you have just given, need to be avoided at all costs. In the interview, I recall having talked about some of the earliest Christian preaching, the kind of thing that Peter and James would have shared with Paul during those fifteen days in Jerusalem (Galatians 1). I made the mistake of saying that "these things" would have been pretty widely known by early Christians, many of whom would have visited Jerusalem and talked to Peter, Jesus' family and others. In the documentary, my sentence about "these things" was placed in sequence just after an "alternative gospel" had been expounded by Eisenmann and Maccoby, virtually none of which I agree with. On screen I appeared to be aligning myself with views that were in fact far from my own.
I have tried to learn from that mistake rather than to resent the program maker for misrepresenting me. I avoid all "this"s, "these"s and "therefore"s. Since then I've sometimes felt that a program might be missing some great gem that I've come up with in favor of something much more mundane, but I've never again felt that I've been misrepresented.
The default attitude of many academics towards the media is hostile. Their working assumption is that you are likely to get treated badly and to have your views ignored, misunderstood, or distorted. No doubt this assumption is often based on experiences similar to or worse than the one I have just outlined, and the only way to protect yourself against this is to say nothing at all. In my own limited experience, however, that kind of thing has been rare. To be friendly and enthusiastic certainly helps, and while shared enthusiasm is not the same thing as mutual trust, it can be the important building block for it.
But how does one build trust with documentary makers? It is important to begin on the right footing and to avoid being suspicious of their motives. Although their top priority is to make some compelling television or radio, it is not actually in their interests to annoy contributors. Without even asking the question about the character or integrity of most documentary makers (and those I know all happen to have been very nice people), it is worth bearing in mind that they do not want you to give their program any bad publicity and they may want to use you again on a future project.
While it might sound obvious, it is important to listen to the program makers as well as to talk to them. They are not looking for self-obsessed academics. It is rewarding to spend time finding out what the program is actually about, to see what kind of editorial direction it has, what kind of angle on the material they are hoping to explore. Even when a researcher contacts an academic for the first time, it is highly unlikely that s/he is beginning from ignorance. Often, they are contacting you because the program has already been commissioned, and it has already been commissioned because it has been pitched, and if it has already been pitched the production team have a clear idea of where they want to go with it. Of course one may want to engage with them critically on the angles they are exploring, but one cannot engage if one has not first listened.
The principle extends to the filming itself. It really is pointless trying to get your own particular theory in at all costs—a television documentary is a group production and your desperate attempts to peddle your own wares may simply end up on the cutting room floor. In a context of listening to the program makers, your own take on the subject matter is more likely to get heard. It is a process of engagement and dialogue and not of muscling your way in.
It is worth remembering too just how different television is as a means of communicating ideas. Because lecturing is our trade, we think we know how to communicate. Yet there is a world of difference between delivering a good, detailed academic paper and mastering the art of communicating in self-contained one-liners. It is pointless to get in front of a camera and ramble in the hope that they will be able to excavate something useful from your screed. The odds are that they will not be able to use any of your material and they will waste time, film and money in the process.
Moreover, the more helpful one is,—this sometimes does involve going the extra mile—the more likely one is to be consulted about the content of the program, its script and its editorial direction. Most historical documentaries have at least one paid consultant, and that person will be on call to answer the production team's queries, to take a careful look at the script and sometimes to help with answering complaints afterwards. It is much more rewarding to work as a consultant on a program than only as a participant, not least because one bears some responsibility for the content of the rest of the program. This is also a risky business because it involves lending your name to a given program and so taking some responsibility for the contents. It helps one to realize how far a radio or television documentary is a group work in which each person plays a specific role. The consultant is never going to be personally satisfied with everything in a given documentary, but this is tempered with the pride of sharing in the accolades for a successful program.
Getting Out of the Classroom
There are some real pleasures involved with doing work with media. I will not shy away from admitting that it is often a most enjoyable insight into another kind of life, albeit a life I would rather taste on the odd occasion than have to indulge in all the time. When the BBC / Discovery series Son of God (broadcast in the USA as Jesus: The Complete Story) began to broadcast in March 2001, I helped out with some of the publicity, including the live Channel 4 program Big Breakfast, on which I appeared with the series co-producer and director, Jean Claude Bragard. It was simultaneously scary and exhilarating—the pace, the lights, the noise, the adrenalin. As an academic, you know you have a challenge when you are attempting to talk about the virgin birth and the mere mention of the word "virgin" induces adolescent tee-hee-hees all round.
There is also the travel. Although for British-made documentaries one is more likely to get interviewed in some corner of Manchester, London, Oxford or Birmingham, just occasionally the chance to travel to unexpected places comes up. Parts of Morocco often stand in for first century Israel, or, for that matter, other places in the ancient Mediterranean world. For the BBC / Discovery program St. Paul, Philip Esler and I travelled to Ouarzazate and were interviewed by Jonathan Edwards above and beside dramatic reconstructions of the Jerusalem council and the Antioch incident. It was a wonderful experience to be present at events that had hitherto only been part of my imagination.
Another advantage of cooperating with the media is that it can awaken interest in scholarship in your area. Even if you do not get much chance to make your views known on a given program, the publicity generated might create some interest in your material. This is one of the points I make to those academic colleagues who see media dons as no better than academic prostitutes. Yes, a particular program may not be as delightful in illustrating how stimulating academic Biblical studies can be, but our presence on such programs leads viewers to the educational resources that now often accompany the series, and will drive more visitors to your web site, and perhaps even to your books.
The most shocking thing about working with the media is that people hear what you say. If you are a John Dominic Crossan, an Elaine Pagels, or a Tom Wright, you are used to large audiences. Your books sell like hotcakes, you can fill a ballroom at an SBL meeting, and the media love you. But most of us are not familiar with the grand scale—you certainly cannot afford to live off book royalties and you are lucky if people have even heard of your ideas, let alone read them. Against this kind of background, I was stunned by the reaction from lots of people I knew to a one-sentence remark I made about the virgin birth in a BBC documentary called The Virgin Mary (aired December 2002). That one sentence, in its own limited way, made far more impact than the totality of what I had written to that point.
I was trying to speak with appropriate critical distance about what the historian can know about the events surrounding Jesus' birth. Then, off camera, the director asked me informally what my personal view was. I commented that as a Christian I found the birth narratives inspiring and that I loved the story of the virgin birth but that speaking as an historian I suspected that Joseph was Jesus' biological father. The director then encouraged me to say this on camera; I thought about it and decided that I was happy to do so and I attempted to encapsulate it as well as I could in a one-liner. The one-liner made it into the documentary and not only there but also into various British newspapers, including the popular right wing paper the Daily Mail. In one of those gems of bizarre timing, the minister of the church I attend in Birmingham read this on the day I was taking my two daughters in for a dress rehearsal of the church nativity play (one was an angel, one was a star). He told me about the article, which I had not read, and said that he did not believe that I had said it. Through the media, my academic life had met my church life in an unexpected way. It is not that I am secretive about my views; I would happily have talked to anyone at church about my views on the virgin birth or any other issue if the occasion had presented itself. But it is in the nature of such things that occasions to discuss the virgin birth had not presented themselves, at least not in the church I attend. I regret that views my friends found problematic came out in this way. The minister has not asked me to preach again since that day.
Although on this occasion unfortunate, this experience points up the problem that we have not been as successful as we might have been in communicating our scholarship to the public, and especially the church. While talking to the media can be risky because of the ways in which they select, highlight, and recontextualize our material, my own view is that it is more than worthwhile if we want to have any hope that biblical scholarship will be taken seriously by the church and the world. And if they don't talk to serious biblical scholars, there are plenty of pseudo-intellectuals who are clambering for media attention for their sensationalist literature. Unless we are serious about our responsibility to communicate our scholarship, we run the risk of making ourselves and what we do irrelevant, and seeing the media look elsewhere for insight into the Bible.
Mark Goodacre is Senior Lecturer in New Testament in the Department of Theology at the University of Birmingham, U.K. He is secretary of the British New Testament Society and co-chair of the SBL Synoptics Section. He is the author of The New Testament Gateway (http://NTGateway.com) and is a regular contributor to radio and television programs.
Citation: Mark Goodacre, " The Pleasures and Perils of Talking to the Media," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=239