I love the Evangelical newsmagazine World, because when it goes after a target, it punches hard. Today World exposes shocking corruption at Liberty University, where the administration of university president Jerry Falwell Jr. is trying to turn the journalism program and the Champion, the campus newspaper, into a public relations training department. Excerpts:
Tension between the newspaper and Falwell emerged in 2016: To the dismay of some Champion staffers, he strongly endorsed Donald Trump. Falwell began reviewing prior to publication Champion articles that mentioned Trump. On one occasion, he made Champion editors end opinion pieces with a note on how they were voting. Opinion writer Jordan Jarrett chose not to and found a note under her published article: “The writer refused to reveal which candidate she is supporting for president.”
World writes about case after case of journalism faculty spiking stories before they could be published. And then:
Two days later, April 18, Falwell addressed the current and incoming Champion staff in a hastily arranged conference call. A dozen students pulled their rolling desk chairs around the news editor’s desk to wait for the phone to ring. Staffers prayed that God would help them be respectful and everything would be resolved soon. [Journalism school dean Bruce] Kirk and [newspaper faculty adviser Deborah] Huff were also in the room.
Falwell then called and told them the newspaper had been “established to champion the interests of the university, disseminate information about happenings on Liberty’s campus, as well as the positive impacts of Liberty in the community and beyond. And as such, the publisher of the publication, which is the university, is responsible for content decisions, to find stories to be covered by Champion personnel and makes all of the calls on the articles, photographs and other content. … We’re going to have to be stricter in the future if these protocols aren’t followed.”
He asked if there were any questions. The students were silent. Huff said, “I’m looking around the room. … I don’t see anybody with a hand up.” After Falwell hung up, Kirk said, “If you don’t know, I’m Dean Kirk. … In the real world, which this isn’t, let’s just be honest, right? … You will be beholden to an organization, to a company. … That is just part of life. And it’s part of life for all of us by the way. Put journalism aside for a second. Do I get to do everything that I want to do or does Jerry dictate what I get to do? … Somebody else decides what you do and what you don’t say or do.”
Later, Kirk spoke of the story about Red Letter Christians: “I think everybody here is intelligent enough to understand that that story has got some real negative overtones, undertones, potentials. … You have to consider that as a starting point and say, ‘OK, what’s the benefit for this? What’s going to happen that is positive for Liberty?’”
Covey asked how what happened at an educational institution might be different from what happened at a business. Kirk replied, “It’s not really that different. Frankly, I said it’s a family business, it is. I mean, Jerry Falwell and his dad Jerry before him and that’s how this university was founded, right? It wasn’t founded by somebody else. It was founded by the Falwells.” Staff members exchanged glances as he spoke, and some looked at the floor to avoid eye contact.
Kirk concluded, “I think it’s great that Jerry was willing to take even a few minutes to do this. He’s incredibly busy. It’s not every university paper that even gets to hear from their president, let alone ask a question if you wanted to. You were probably afraid to, and I get it. You don’t want him to label you as the one like, ‘Who asked that question? Who was that?’ You don’t want to be that person, I get that.” He asked the students to remember, “It’s their paper. They can do what they want. … If things aren’t followed, they’ll get stricter.”
Then there were firings. And:
Kirk told the new staffers, “Your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is. … Don’t destroy the image of LU. Pretty simple. OK? Well you might say, ‘Well, that’s not my job, my job is to do journalism. My job is to be First Amendment. My job is to go out and dig and investigate, and I should do anything I want to do because I’m a journalist.’ So let’s get that notion out of your head. OK?”
He added, “It’s their newspaper. They can stop this newspaper today if they wanted to. And just so you know, they can do it. Too much trouble, too many problems, we’re getting ourselves in hot water, you guys are doing stories we can’t defend. We’re gonna stop.”
Read the whole thing. There’s much more.
This is what corruption looks like. The truth is, Bruce Kirk is correct in saying that Liberty University could shut the newspaper down. He’s not lying to those students. Jerry Falwell Jr. is destroying the credibility of the student newspaper and its journalism program. Under Falwell, Liberty is training journalists to place the pursuit of truth second to the preservation of an institution’s interest — or, to be precise, second to the interests of the institution’s leadership.
This is not journalism. This is public relations.
It reminded me of this March 2002 conference on Catholic journalists in the public square, in which I participated. The conference had been scheduled before the scandal broke out of Boston, but Boston and its ripple effects were main thing people wanted to talk about. In my talk to the conference, I said:
I think that being a Catholic makes me a better journalist because truth is one. We don’t have journalistic truths and Catholic truths. All truths work for the good of the faith and we do not need to be afraid of the truth. It may humble us, but it will make us holy, and we can’t be holy outside of the truth. I don’t see that there’s a particular conflict between my vocation, as a journalist, to tell the truth and my vocation, as a Catholic, to tell and to live the truth.
After I finished my talk, Joseph Bottum, then of the Weekly Standard (he would go on to become editor-in-chief of First Things after Richard John Neuhaus died), gave his talk. In it, he said after a bit:
Now that job of being a professional Catholic, it seems to me, is one into which Rod Dreher has fallen. In recent articles Rod has fallen off the tight rope. He said that pedophilia scandals have to be talked about. He’s absolutely right and we should talk about it. We should talk about it in this room, but that doesn’t mean it has to be talked about on the front cover of National Review.
He says we need to regain our public voice. It strikes me that this is not the way to regain our public voice. This is the way to lose it forever. In fact, there are publications that would willingly use Catholics to be the point men in this attack which they intend to ultimately to be an attack on Catholicism. We’ve seen it before. The lefty journals of New York City have a set of people they use as their professional Catholics, Garry Wills, or Mary Gordon. They’re always trotted out to say: I am a Catholic, but I have to say, the Church’s position on this or what the Church is doing on that is an outrage.
I’ve watched it happen on the right as well. The Wall Street Journal a few years ago published a column by Ralph McInerny that bothered me a great deal. He let himself be used by the Wall Street Journal to write exactly the Garry Wills/Mary Gordon column that says I am a Catholic, but I can’t believe what the Church is saying about capital punishment. This is a perpetual threat, a perpetual danger and it seems to me one that we must all guard ourselves against and that Rod has fallen off the wagon on.
Dreher: So what’s the alternative? If we only leave the public square open to the Richard McBrien’s, the dissenters, among the professional Catholic set, who’s is going to be out there to stand up for what the Church really does teach. Being a faithful Catholic does not mean that you have to fall in line behind the bishops just out of respect for the bishops because of their office.
Bottum:It’s when it becomes obsession that it begins to worry me. I also think you are mad, Rod, if you imagine that by being widely quoted in dissent you are thereby going to gain a standing that you will be able to use in the mainstream media when you want to put out a position of orthodoxy. You are not gaining resources on this topic which will then allow you to print something otherwise orthodox on a later issue in the New York Times. It’s just not true.
Dreher: I just don’t see what the alternative is. I don’t enjoy attacking the Church, but I think it has to be done and it has to be done from a position of fidelity to the magisterium and fidelity to the laity as well because the Church is not just the institution.
I think events of the past 16 years have done much to vindicate the stance I took at that conference, and to discredit the stance Jody Bottum took. I don’t say that to congratulate myself, but only to point out that the idea that the truth must take a back seat to the idea of protecting an institution, or of not giving one’s enemies an advantage, is corrupting.
This doesn’t just happen to Christians, obviously. I am cynical about the likelihood that the mainstream media will ever tell the full story of Cardinal McCarrick’s corruption, because to do so would mean having to tell stories about homosexual networks in the priesthood — stories that go against the cheerleading stance on homosexuality that the media have committed themselves.
I don’t have a lot of patience for mainstream journalists trashing Falwell Jr. when they themselves have their own sacred cows for which they run interference. I recall back in 2003, being at an editorial writers’ conference, and standing with a tiny group of conservative opinion-writers, all of us amazed by how utterly clueless the great liberal mass of our colleagues were, congratulating themselves on their own truth-telling courage, unable to see their own hypocrisies.
Still, for people of the Book, believing that protecting Liberty University, the Roman Catholic Church, or any other institution is more important than telling the truth is the seed of corruption. If you let it take root, it will grow into a malicious vine that will strangle your integrity.