We’re in the middle of our colloquium with Eric and Carol Meyers and Eric was asked –
If you were grading the media what grade would you give them, in general, for their portrayal of archaeology? And what grade would you give academics for their interactions with the media? (a far too broad question but I hope you get my point).
To which he sagely replied-
Regarding the media and grading them I would certainty give out a few A’s, first to John Noble Wilford of the New York Times whose reporting on archaeology through the years has been nothing short of wonderful. He has truly been responsible and has educated the public. But reporters like him are few and far between and most would go for the more sensational aspects of individual finds rather than overall context and significance. Ethan Bronner’s essay in the book is an excellent case study for someone who lived in Jerusalem during some of the most contentious years of the maximalist/minimalist debate.
There is an excellent article in today’s New York Times about the Herod the Great exhibit at the Israel Museum, which points to problems about international antiquities law in war zones and raises the issue of Israel’s rights to exhibit or possess archaeological material excavated over the Green Line, albeit mostly in area C.
So there are some good reporters out there but few are trained in the field or take the time to truly learn about a subject under the pressure of deadlines, etc. I can’t tell you how many times I have been called about a subject or discovery and the reporter says “Well I have a deadline at 5:00 PM today, I really can’t take time to check this out.”
The worst of these types are the media types who make those Christmas or Easter specials for cable and call out of nowhere and start asking questions and don’t even ask if you are busy, and then into the discussion say “Hope you don’t mind that I am recording this.” Then of course they say we are way over budget and have no funds for a fee and most colleagues just go along with this even though they have no idea how the editorial process will work out or what the end product will be like. This was the case with the recent ABC show with Christian Armanpour and her son. Though she interviewed some heavyweights and obviously got some good material to work with, the show exhibited an embarrassing naivete with respect to the Bible and ANE history and archaeology and was a setback for the field. Had some of the advisers to the show been more insistent that their words and views were taken seriously and would not be used for promoting sensationalist claims, perhaps it would have come out better. The show gets a D from me.
Now for my colleagues: Their mistaken belief that being on TV or getting interviewed in the press will advance their career needs to be questioned as being a good strategy. When you are as old as Dever or me you can get away with a lot but I must say I would urge everyone to be a bit gun shy and be careful of reporters and media types whom you know will take your comments out of context and use them for their own purposes and then you are stuck with it. Usually, I am certain what our colleagues say is good but by not being careful enough the way it comes out on TV or in the press is often not helpful. So I would simply urge my colleagues to be specific with the individuals who interview them and say they want to see copy or script before it goes out or appears and hope for the best. Several schools have good programs for journalists in religion and the media, NYU is tops, and maybe we ought to try and do more with them or with other schools of journalism. I therefore give my colleagues an “I” or Incomplete, more needs to be done.
I hope everyone takes Eric’s advice seriously. More harm is being done to the public’s understanding of ‘biblical archaeology’ by poorly formulated TV specials like Amanpour’s than can be undone by 10 scholarly conferences.
And, since I know a number of ‘religion’ reporters read here I would urge them, in the strongest possible terms, to seek out actual scholars before they air ‘Bible themed’ or ‘biblical archaeology’ specials and honestly consult with them and not simply or merely snip and cut and paste them.