Kerri Miller’s journalistic double standard

Kerri Miller is either a dreadful journalist or an uneven one, and here’s the evidence: her interviews with Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins. The former is saccharine and uncritical, the latter hypercritical and unfair.

Yesterday I mentioned Kerri Miller’s interview of Karen Armstrong on Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). I didn’t hear the whole thing, but did watch three 10-minute video clips and commented on one. Now you can hear the whole interview, which is 58 minutes long, at this site.

Go there and press the button that looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 8.05.40 AM

If you are even a bit critical of religion, you’ll find the interview infuriating. Armstrong, with Miller’s approbation, excuses religion and fields Miller’s softball questions. Miller didn’t ask a single hard or provocative question, but merely eggs on, worshipfully, Armstrong’s long-winded lucubrations.  (Warning: don’t listen to this unless you have a strong constitution!). Armstrong apparently doesn’t know how to answer a question without nattering on for ten minutes. Arrogant, self-centered, and afflicted with a chronic case of logorrhea, Armstrong even reads her entire Charter for Compassion, and lets us know that she won the TED Prize for it. And, of course, she exculpates religion for every evil supposedly done in its name, blaming oppression (that goes for ISIS, too).

Now, if you have time, listen to her 2009 interview of Richard Dawkins here (there are six YouTube pieces that will play in order).

It’s the usual aggressive interview leveled at Richard by those who believe in belief. She accuses him of conceiving of religion as “infantile” and “unsophisticated” (the usual strawman), calling Dawkins a “fundamentalist” similar to religious fundamentalists. She even asks him whether, as an ageing male, he might possibly find God on his deathbed. Miller also doesn’t seem to evince much understanding about how science works, and asks him why on Earth he would bother writing his book on the evidence for evolution (The Greatest Show on Earth). It’s clear that she is hostile, and I’m gratified that Dawkins remains fairly calm when under attack.

Now I don’t mind interviewers being hard on their subjects, but it’s simply bad journalism to be hard on an atheist while kissing the rump of a closet religionist like Karen Armstrong. Welcome to America, and National Public Radio.

Miller:

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The stuff below is from an interview of Kerri Miller by Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine. The warning signs are already there:

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37 Comments

  1. Patricia
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    It’s called ”unbiased interviewing” isn’t it? Tell me another one…..

  2. Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    I fully agree that she is VERY uneven and unfair here.

    Generally, for instance in the lead-up to our recent elections, she does ask tough questions and usually doesn’t let people people weasel out of answering.

    Which made her performance with Armstrong all the more repulsive.

    Definitely a “believer in belief”. And, I’m pretty sure, after having listened to her for many years, an actual believer. (The goddiness of Minnesotans always amazes me.)

    • eric
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      Its unfair but ultimately I’m okay with it. Dawkins comes out of a hard interview looking like he really knows what he’s talking about. Trial by fire, he comes through it great. In contrast, with Armstrong, all those softball questions really just serve the purpose of “here, have some more rope…”

      (Hmmm…I could’ve probably mixed a couple more metaphors in there if I really tried, but oh well, I’ll let it stand as the gist should be clear.)

      • Sastra
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

        To us, she’s hanging herself.

        But people aren’t trained to ask hard questions about soft squishy Spirituality. It’s all nice, and it’s pro-faith — what’s not to like?

        This is where a real journalist at least plays devil’s advocate and challenges empty platitudes which sound so pleasing to the ear. They demand clarity, bring up problems and issues. They read her critics and say “but Famous Name so-and-so said this-and-that. How would you answer them?”

        But Karen Armstrong seems to be up there with the Dali Lama and Mother Theresa. She’s an icon for what is right about religion. She shows how you can be so vague they’ll never catch you.

        • eric
          Posted November 20, 2014 at 6:30 am | Permalink

          I think I must be somewhat more optimistic about the public than you. Yes most of us have a confirmation bias, and in religious people that might show as uncritically accepting positive statements about religion more than negative ones. However, I think most of the US public* can recognize the difference between a softball and hardball interview when they hear either.
          Would I like to hear a less lopsided approach? Yes. Do I think the softballness results in people changing their mind on the subject? Not too much.

          *Moreover, I expect that regular MPR listeners may be more highly educated than ‘the American public’.

  3. Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Oh, well. AS EO Wilson might say, she’s “just a journalist.”

  4. ploubere
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I wasn’t even aware of her NPR presence, since I rarely listen to it past the morning show. No reason to change my habits, I see.

  5. Randy Schenck
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the information on the Dawkins interview. I have not listened to her interview with Karen Armstrong. Not sure I can take it.

    With Dawkins she just continues to ask rather dumb questions – like when do you think everything will be solved. Miller is apparently Obsessed with the statement in his book about hoping to convert the believers. She must have gone back to that one 6 or 7 times. Very boring. I wish Richard Dawkins had asked her what religion has solved.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      To a lot of liberal believers, challenging someone else’s religion is a sin up there with violence. A Spiritual friend of mine once defined “fundamentalism” for me as “telling people you’re right and they’re wrong.” Not believing it — telling them. Imposing your views.

      If you use this definition, you can see why so many people call Dawkins an “atheist fundamentalist.”

      The liberal religious do not recognize the soft passive-aggressive conversion techniques of the “God is love- faith is humility” mantra. Armstrong’s relentless promotion of faith, God, and faith in God is supposed to be the opposite of what the fundamentalists do. Because Love

  6. Posted November 19, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Oy, that Dawkins interview was dire! Richard did great, as usual, but, man was it painful to listen to Miller! Almost, but not quite, as bad as that infamous one he did in the hallway with the crazy Creationist lady.

    b&

  7. Gimmepaws
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    There is no penalty for shitting on atheists.
    So, these mainstream jackasses do it over and over again, without hesitation. After all, why not? It’s good for ratings!
    The day that atheists should find their balls and start responding in kind, then we may start getting some respect.
    Or we can go on being “nice”, and keep wiping the shit off our heads.

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think the problem is that atheists are too “nice”. A lot of us do let our indignation show.

      The problem is that a) we’re a minority, and a minority that most people feel it’s ok to vilify. The media doesn’t feel pressure to be fair to us. And b) atheists usually are atheists because of their commitment to honesty, integrity, truth, and the like. Unscrupulous rhetoric is not really in our armory. When we try to fight back with reasoned arguments and facts, it looks weak to people who aren’t as committed to honesty, integrity, etc.

      I’m sure there are other factors at play as well.

      • winewithcats
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

        So much of b). I feel this needs to be pointed out, perhaps even more so than we need reasoned arguments, because a lot of people don’t even seem to be aware of the fact that they aren’t particularly committed to honesty, integrity, etc. That’s to say, most people don’t recognize, or aren’t even aware of, their own cognitive biases. Finding a “nice” way to point this out to someone is difficult.

    • Timothy Hughbanks
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

      This is why it was a pleasure to listen to Hitchens, no matter who tried to ambush him, he virtually always managed to make them look like an idiot (if they had it coming) in the classiest way possible.

      • Posted November 20, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        Classy? Maybe. But I most certainly wouldn’t characterize Hitchens’ approach as “nice”.

        • Gimmepaws
          Posted November 22, 2014 at 12:24 am | Permalink

          It seems that, as appears to be the case all too often in public forums when people try to say something that others are not ready or willing to fully comprehend, a point is being missed, or misunderstood: when I say “nice”, I mean ineffectual, unable to stand up for oneself.

          And I *don’t* mean Hitchens, or Harris, or Dawkins, or other publicly-known names. They know (or knew) how to give back as good as they get. I mean *you*, *me*, and many others who play down their convictions in their private lives so as “not to make a fuss”, “not to make a scene”, and “keep the peace”.

          Well, it’s time to make a fuss and raise a little hell in our lives, in my opinion — to risk something, a little or a lot. Let’s be reminded that religionists are not shy in foisting their crap on the rest of us. If there is anything we could learn from their example, it is that it pays off to be at least just as forceful.

          Forceful. Not batshit crazy. Not a pushover. Not an insult-spewing caricature. A rational, warm person who will take no shit.

          Funny thing, there are many more out there who don’t buy the religious crap than the “common wisdom” is willing to admit, and by being timid we end up strengthening the myth that atheists are a teensy weensy pathetic minority.

          They (we?) are not.

          • Posted November 22, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

            1) I unequivocally agree that we atheists should not be pushovers, even in our private, personal lives.

            2) Do you have data to support your claim that atheists are not a minority? This claim makes me suspect you do not live in the US.

            3) Instead of accusing others of being unready or unwilling or unable to comprehend a point you’re trying to make, I think you should consider the possibility that you didn’t make your point very clearly to begin with, and that communicating your precise message on the first attempt might be something you’d like to work on.

            • Gimmepaws
              Posted November 24, 2014 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

              Can’t anyone READ?
              Who said that atheists are NOT a minority?
              I said they may not be the TINY minority that even they (we?) themselves think they are.
              If you had paid attention, you may have even understood what I wrote.

              • Posted November 24, 2014 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

                Here’s what I’m able to read in the above comment: a subtle attempt to backpeddle from a firm assertion (they are not) to “they may not…”

                Some tips for effective writing: It’s up to the writer to do the lion’s share of eliminating points of possible misinterpretation. An astute writer would recognize that “atheists are not a tiny minority”, especially when written to counter the claim “atheists are a minority (no modifier)”, is likely to be interpreted simply as “atheists are not a minority”. A good editor would suggest: “although atheists are indeed a minority, we’re not that small a minority.” Isn’t that wonderfully clear?

                Similarly, when you write that “it’s time we stop being nice”, where “we” seems to be a pronoun substituting for “atheists in general”, that is, any atheist, including famous ones, it’s likely that readers will not pull the conclusion “I’m not talking about famous atheists” out of thin air. Again, an editor would suggest that you include a brief sentence explicitly excluding famous atheists.

                Finally, what makes you so sure most non-famous atheists are so “nice”? That may be true, but neither of us actually knows that it is. On top of which, there are contexts in which it is appropriate to keep the peace. I have my lines, and if they’re not crossed by friends or family members, I’ll try to keep the peace, but if they are, I will stand up for my principles.

  8. Diane G.
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    sub

  9. matt
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    after listening to this interview with dawkins i’m shocked that anyone would claim he is any way strident as many of his faithiest critics claim.

  10. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    She even asks him whether, as an ageing male, he might possibly find God on his deathbed.

    Gee Kerri, I suppose that is possible that my mental faculties might so deteriorate that I can no longer recognize anyone I know, that I can no longer understand anything about biology, even basic logic – in short, I might no longer be able to tell shit from shinola. So I guess you can’t rule out the possibility entirely. I’m curious, Kerri, do you actually feel that if I found God under such circumstances, your faith would somehow be vindicated?

    • Doug
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

      And even if he doesn’t find God on his deathbed, Christians will say that he did, as they do with Darwin, Voltaire and Thomas Paine.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 1:04 am | Permalink

        Rumors to this effect about Paine started about 10 years after his death first promulgated by a Quaker, Mary Roscoe, and reliable accounts of Paine’s death show she fabricated this.

        The similar rumor about Darwin was started very shortly after his death by a Lady Hope who claimed to have been at his deathbed, but Darwin’s son and daughter immediately retorted that she was not there.

        The circumstances of Voltaire’s death are less certain.

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. What a pointless question.

      “But Professor Dawkins, didn’t you, as a four-year-old, believe in Santa?”

      It’s depressing to think she imagines that question to be of journalistic worth.

  11. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    What bothers me about Armstrong is her getting quite a bit of the history of religion & its relationship to science just plain wrong- and her verbosity.

    The stuff she said in the video clip from yesterday’s post would play a bit better if she said that God sometimes might be a symbolic metaphor for love, the mystery of existence, etc. but she seems to have stated her position in the most conceptually confused way I could imagine.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 20, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      Verbosity is a classic tactic of carnies since ancient times. Of course it does not necessarily indicate bullshit but the correlation is plenty strong enough to consider it a warning sign.

      For example Steven Pinker is also rather verbose. But it is easy enough to distinguish between his verbosity and that of Armstrong by considering the semantic content to word count ratio. Pinker’s verbosity is due to the fact that he has a lot of information to communicate, while Armstrong’s is due to a need to obfuscate the fact that she is trying to sell a whole lot of nothing.

      • Posted November 20, 2014 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

        I’d add that Armstrong’s verbosity is likely also attributable to ego: “Listen to me. I have so much to say and it’s just impossibly insightful.”

  12. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand what JC/Prof CC means by Armstrong being a “closet” religionist.

  13. BillyJoe
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    I finally got to listen to the interview with Richard Dawkins.

    I actually didn’t mind the interviewer. She asked pointed questions but was never rude and she allowed him plenty of time to answer as fully and completely as he wished. And, at the end of the interview, she pleasantly invited him back to talk about his new book.

    I agree she did belabour the point about converting believers. Three times and you’re out, I think that’s the rule. Even salesman quit after you say “no” three times (try it…works every time!).

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 5:42 am | Permalink

      Yes, it was an okay interview except for that and the “deathbed” bit; what I objected to was how she treated Karen Armstrong compared to how she treated Dawkins.

  14. Posted November 20, 2014 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    The deathbed question often comes up, and is certainly an odd one as it only makes sense to a member of a particular religion.

    A Christian asks an atheist whether they might find God on their deathbed. Would they, in turn, ever consider finding Odin on their own deathbed? Probably not. So why would an atheist suddenly decide to choose one god among the myriad that people have come up with?

    Yes, when facing something as dreadful as death, most of us would probably suddenly manifest a need for succor. Personally, I’d probably wish fervently that my wife was there, or even my mom. But a mythological construct worshipped by people whose views I find quaint at best and at worst dangerous? Nah, I’d pass.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted November 21, 2014 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      I haven’t watched/listened, but I assume Richard would have come back with “You mean, when I’m completely gaga? Well, I hope not.”

  15. Greg Peterson
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    This evidence aside, because this appears to me as very much an outlier, Miller is an excellent journalist on most topics. Perhaps she should recuse herself on issues of faith and religion because I agree that she comes off uneven here, at best, but whole-body tar-and-feathering is not really justified. As a Minnesotan and fanatical NPR fan, I can attest that most of the time she is a exemplary journalist. Few people are free from biases. I am not an apologist for this unfortunate example from Miller. I would say that we, as atheists, are sometimes guilty of a certain bias in what we think we hear, too. It’s even enough to hear special treatment or rough treatment where none was intended, merely because of our own viewpoint.

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      I would respectfully disagree, and claim that I did not give Miller a “whole-body tar and feathering” in this article. I called her out for her inequality of treatment of two people. I did not call for her to be fired or say that her other endeavors were worthless.

      • Greg Peterson
        Posted November 21, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        Fair enough. I was thinking about a couple of the comments when I wrote that rather than the main post, but failed to make that clear. Another minor point that I thought of later was that Miller’s “Talking Volumes” role is quite a bit different than her normal journalism role. I don’t mean that journalistic integrity is not still an issue, it’s just that if she got a reputation for grilling the authors she invites on that show too hard, she might not get as many good authors to show up. Again–not really an excuse. I can just imagine her wearing kid gloves for “Volumes” more than for her daily news shows.


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