The New York Times, Falwell, Trump and shady Florida real estate (Oh! And nude pictures!)

Long, long ago, there was a time when few newspaper editors in Texan could resist an opportunity to put the words “Baylor” and “Playboy” in the same headline. Yes, we are talking ages ago — back in the 1970s and ‘80s when Hugh Hefner was still considered a player.

Baylor, of course, was the state’s most prominent Baptist institution. Playboy was Playboy. Clickbait didn’t exist, but everyone knew that combining “nude” and “Baptist” would draw cheers in secular newsrooms.

Why bring that up? It appears that the Donald Trump-era version of that editorial state of mind is a story that puts “Falwell” and “pool boy” in the same headline. Oh, and don’t forget the hyper-clickable words “nude pictures.” And prison-resident “Michael Cohen.” And alleged comedian “Tom Arnold.”

With those lowbrow ingredients, some New York Times professional showed remarkable self-control when writing this headline: “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen.”

During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — I told host Todd Wilken that you can sense that this headline was supposed to be “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen, oh my!” You know there had to be some Times voices arguing in favor of including “Falwell” and “nude pictures.”

Days later, it’s remarkable how little traction this story has gained. So far, even The Drudge Report has resisted adding a racy headline about it. While liberal Twitter has gone loco (see some of the attached tweets), there hasn’t been a mainstream firestorm — which is what usually happens when a neo-tabloid tale of this kind is baptized into mainstream journalism by the holy New York Times. What’s going on here, in terms of journalism? Here at GetReligion I noted:

Everything begins and ends with politics, of course, even in a story packed with all kinds of sexy whispers and innuendo about personal scandals. …

Basically, this story is built on real estate and court documents (that’s the solid stuff), along with a crazy quilt of materials from sources like Cohen, reality-TV wannabe Arnold, BuzzFeed and a pivotal anonymous source (allegedly) close to Falwell who readers are told next to nothing about, even though he/she is crucial to this article’s credibility.

In social media, lots of folks have simply led their imaginations run wild.

If you care about journalism, it really helps to pause and ask this question: What have readers learned that was based on documents and on-the-record interviews or testimonies? There is quite a bit of information about the rather bizarre South Florida real-estate deal that involved Jerry Falwell, Jr., and, yes, an ambitious hotel pool boy and others.

But what about the claims that all this stuff was linked to Falwell’s important decision to sever his early ties to Sen. Ted Cruz and throw his GOP primary season support to Trump? That’s where things get hazy. At that point, start looking for anonymous quotes from an insider with unknown motives.

What about the nude photos? The Miami Herald published a long news report that filled in some details there — including confirmation that three photos exist. Read the following carefully:

In his only known interview about the subject, first reported by Reuters and BuzzFeed, Falwell denied the existence of photographs involving himself.

“This report is not accurate,” Falwell told the Todd Starnes radio show. “There are no compromising or embarrassing photos of me.”

Three photographs have been seen by the Herald, however. They are images not of Falwell, but of his wife in various stages of undress. It is not known who took the photographs or when they were taken, and the Herald was not given the photographs and therefore has not been able to authenticate them independently. Two of the photographs appear to have been taken at the Falwells’ farm in Virginia, and a third at the Cheeca Lodge.

So what does this tell us? It appears that we’re talking about personal photos that Cohen called “private,” “husband and wife” material. The photos were taken at the Falwell home and, in private, at a resort?

That sounds kind of risky, in terms of evangelical behavior, but not the stuff of national scandal — until someone steals them. Do people blame Hollywood stars when their private photos are handed to others against their wills?

If you are looking for a somewhat calm attempt to keep track of the various threads in this crazy quilt drama, check out this Talking Points Memo piece (by one of my former students): “Five Points: Confused By The Cohen-Falwell Racy Photo Saga? Here’s Everything You Need To Know.”

Here is some crucial material near the end of that:

While there is still no evidence that any deal was arranged between Cohen and Falwell over the Trump fixer’s handling of the photo crisis, the timing of the ordeal and Falwell’s surprising endorsement of Trump for president is notable.

Cohen was reportedly busy handling the photo ordeal in the months leading up to Falwell’s endorsement, and Cohen has previously said he was the architect behind the endorsement. The endorsement from one of the most prominent evangelicals in the country was momentous for Trump’s campaign and widely credited as the catalyst that shifted the white evangelical vote away from candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who announced his presidential campaign at Liberty University in 2015, and toward Trump.

The timing becomes especially puzzling given assertions from Cruz’s former spokesman, who told the Herald that Falwell assured him prior to his Trump announcement that he wouldn’t back a primary candidate, in part because the Liberty University school board wouldn’t allow him to. But Falwell announced his support for Trump in January 2016, just one week before the Iowa caucuses.

Could there be more to this?

Of course. We live in the age of smartphone cameras and easy-to-forward digital documents. Tragically, just about anything is possible.

So stay tuned. But right now, enjoy the podcast. Then go take a shower and read a Jane Austen novel or something else that is edifying.

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