Liberty University

Friday Five: Jarrid Wilson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Wedgwood Baptist anniversary, Ostling on Godbeat

Friday Five: Jarrid Wilson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Wedgwood Baptist anniversary, Ostling on Godbeat

Welcome to the published-later-in-the-day-than-usual edition of Friday Five.

I’m on a reporting trip to Tennessee with my regular job, and GetReligion Editor Terry Mattingly graciously gave me extra time to write this.

After that brief intro, let’s dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This is the story that I just can’t get out of my mind: the death of pastor, author and mental health advocate Jarrid Wilson by suicide.

In a post Thursday, tmatt delved into Religion News Service’s initial coverage of the tragedy. Look for much more discussion in a post Saturday related to GR’s weekly podcast.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: My post declaring that “Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously” was our No. 1 analysis of the week.

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Falwell Jr., Liberty University share GetReligion's post on Politico story — but did they actually read it?

Falwell Jr., Liberty University share GetReligion's post on Politico story — but did they actually read it?

Another bizarre twist in the Jerry Falwell Jr. story came Tuesday when the Liberty University president accused former board members and employees of an “attempted coup.”

That claim came a day after a long, negative Politico piece on Falwell quoted two dozen anonymous sources characterized as “current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell.”

How bad are things for Falwell and Liberty?

Well, both of their official Twitter accounts tweeted my GetReligion post from Monday in which I declared, “Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously.”

If you missed that post, you really should read it before finishing this one. What I am about to say will make much more sense with that background in mind. Also, that post has generated a lot of good discussion along with a few typical troll comments from people who obviously didn’t take time to read what I wrote.

Of course, a few folks on Twitter (here and here, for example) asked if Falwell and Liberty actually read what I wrote.

After all, my post was no fan letter to Falwell.

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Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously

Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously

Undoubtedly, many critics of Jerry Falwell Jr. will love Politico’s long takedown of the controversial Liberty University president.

On Twitter, Jonathan Merritt, for example, called the piece published today a “blistering investigative report” for which the author should win an award.

“It's impossible to pick just one thing to highlight in this … cascade of scoops,” said Ruth Graham.

I’m no Falwell fan myself, and I’d be inclined to agree with the tweets above, except for one major, glaring concern: The writer relies almost entirely on anonymous sources.

“‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’,” screams Politico’s headline. “Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence.”

But they don’t really break their silence — in terms of going on the record and criticizing Falwell.

Politico sets the scene like this:

At Liberty University, all anyone can talk about is Jerry Falwell Jr. Just not in public.

“When he does stupid stuff, people will mention it to others they consider confidants and not keep it totally secret,” a trusted adviser to Falwell, the school’s president and chancellor, told me. “But they won’t rat him out.”

That’s beginning to change.

Over the past year, Falwell, a prominent evangelical leader and supporter of President Donald Trump, has come under increasing scrutiny. News outlets have reported on business deals by Liberty University benefiting Falwell’s friends. Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen claimed that he had helped Falwell clean up racy “personal” photographs.

Based on scores of new interviews and documents obtained for this article, concerns about Falwell’s behavior go well beyond that—and it’s causing longtime, loyal Liberty University officials to rapidly lose faith in him.

More than two dozen current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell spoke to me or provided documents for this article, opening up—for the first time at an institution so intimately associated with the Falwell family—about what they’ve experienced and why they don’t think he’s the right man to lead Liberty University or serve as a figurehead in the Christian conservative movement.

That’s a lot of sources, yes. But they’d have much more credibility if they had names attached to them. On-the-record sources with names attached have more skin in the game than those granted carte blanche to say whatever they want without their names attached. That’s basic Journalism 101 reality.

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Why teach journalism at religious private colleges? Let's start with some creation theology ...

Why teach journalism at religious private colleges? Let's start with some creation theology ...

Here’s an old journalism saying that came up during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (please click here to tune that in). All together now: “It’s hard to cover a war when a general is signing your paycheck.”

That does this have to do with this past week’s GetReligion post about a much-discussed Washington Post piece about Jerry Falwell, Jr., Donald Trump and the student press? Click here for more background on that essay by former Liberty editor Will Young: “Thinking about Liberty University and decades of journalism struggles at private colleges.”

Publications operated by the military are, literally, providing news about the actions of their bosses. They are trying to cover their own publishers. The same thing is true at private colleges and universities. Student journalists (and, yes, their journalism professors) work for news organizations that ultimately answer to administration officials that they inevitably have to cover.

Things can get tense. But to understand the realities here, readers need to know a few facts. Here is a chunk of a Liberty University report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that frequently clashes with schools on the cultural left and right. Many critics call TheFIRE.org a conservative organization because of its defense of old-school First Amendment liberalism.

Note the first sentence here.

As a private university, Liberty is not legally bound by the First Amendment, and may decline to protect students’ free speech in favor of other institutional values. But for years, Falwell has publicly held out the university’s commitment to free expression as far superior to that which other institutions make — indeed, as among the very best in the nation and among the cornerstones of his institution.

Liberty’s policies, hidden from public view behind a password-protected web portal, are devoid of any written commitment that would effectuate its leadership’s proclamations. FIRE has acquired a copy, however, and determined that the policies provide Falwell and Liberty administrators with sweeping control over all manner of campus expression.

Here is another crucial passage:

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Friday Five: El Paso and Dayton, RNS on scene, Liberty's J-school, whopper correction

Friday Five: El Paso and Dayton, RNS on scene, Liberty's J-school, whopper correction

Do we really need to know what makes a mass murderer tick?

It’s a question we’ve contemplated previously here at GetReligion. I’ve noted that I personally tire of reading about crazed killers who go on shooting rampages.

After Saturday’s massacre at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, the Dallas Morning News provided extensive coverage.

However, here’s what the Dallas newspaper didn’t do: mention the gunman’s name on the front page.

“Though the shooter’s name would be online and inside the paper, we would not identify him or show his photo on the front page,” Editor Mike Wilson said of the purposeful decision. “Even in the digital age, what we run on 1A is an important expression of our values.”

It’s a small, mainly symbolic gesture, but I like it. Kudos to Wilson and his team.

Meanwhile, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, dominated headlines this week, and rightly so.

In a post Thursday, I praised an emotional, heart-wrenching story on one victim’s family published by the Los Angeles Times. I declared that the front-page news-feature just might be “the best religion story you’ll read all year.”

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Thinking about Liberty University and decades of journalism struggles at private colleges

Thinking about Liberty University and decades of journalism struggles at private colleges

Over the past week or so, I have received a steady stream of email asking me to comment on a recent essay in The Washington Post that focused on an always touchy subject — efforts to do journalism education on private college campuses.

You wouldn’t know that’s what the essay is about if you merely scanned the headline — which offers your typical Donald-Trump-era news hook. The article is better than this headline.

Inside Liberty University’s ‘culture of fear’

How Jerry Falwell Jr. silences students and professors who reject his pro-Trump politics.

Yes, Trump plays a role in this piece and I am sure that Falwell’s over-the-top loyalty to the president is causing lots of tension at Liberty. However, that isn’t the main source of conflict in this article.

The main problem? Like many private schools (and even a few state schools), Liberty — on academic paper — says that it has a “journalism” program. The problem is what top administrators actually want is a public relations program that prepares students to work in Christian nonprofit groups, think tanks and advocacy publications.

This is a problem that is much bigger than Liberty. I have encountered this syndrome on campuses that are left of center as well as those on the right, during a quarter-century of so of teaching students at (or from) Christian colleges. More than a few college leaders — like Falwell — don’t want parents, donors and trustees reading student-written news material about real life on their campuses.

Real life? Here is the issue that I always use as my line in the sand, when studying conflicts about college journalism programs: Will school officials allow news reports about issues that produce public documents, like police reports.

Sure enough, that’s where former Liberty University journalist Will Young begins his Post essay. This is long, but essential:

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Has this historic term -- 'fundamentalist' -- outlived its usefulness as journalistic lingo?

Has this historic term -- 'fundamentalist' -- outlived its usefulness as journalistic lingo?

Believers who perpetuate the prophet Joseph Smith’s polygamy teaching are commonly called “Mormon fundamentalists” in the media, which is, presumably, one reason President Russell Nelson wants to shed the familiar “Mormon” name for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which forbids polygamy.

Meanwhile, debate persists over the frequent term “Muslim fundamentalists” for politicized or violent groups more precisely called “Islamists” or hyper-traditionalist “Salafis.”

The Religion Guy is now wondering whether the F-word has become so problematic that the news media should drop it altogether.

I say that because of a July 21 New York Times book review of Amber Scorah’s book “Leaving the Witness,” about her experiences within, and eventual defection from, Jehovah’s Witnesses.

(The Guy has not seen Scorah’s opus, but it’s hard to imagine it outclasses the superb pioneering Witnesses memoir “Visions of Glory” by the late Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, which goes unmentioned in the Times. While Scorah has left God behind, dropout Harrison turned Catholic.)

Reviewer C. E. Morgan, who teaches creative writing in Harvard Divinity School’s ministry program, repeatedly calls the Witnesses “fundamentalists,” which — historically speaking — is a religious category mistake of the first order.

Thus the question arises: If teachers at Ivy League theology schools, and copy editors at the nation’s most influential newspaper, don’t know what “fundamentalism” is (even as defined in the Associated Press Stylebook), maybe it’s time for the media to banish the word.

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A curse and a curious description: Trump's famous 'Two Corinthians' gaffe makes headlines once again

A curse and a curious description: Trump's famous 'Two Corinthians' gaffe makes headlines once again

It’s the botched Scriptural reference that keeps on giving.

Three-and-a-half years after then-candidate Donald Trump referred to “Two Corinthians” at Liberty University, the future president’s botched pronunciation (in the minds of most) of “Second Corinthians” is enjoying another 15 minutes of fame.

This time it’s the New York Times focusing on this insider evangelical baseball:

Furious after he was criticized by evangelicals for stumbling in his reference to a book of the Bible during the 2016 campaign, Donald J. Trump lashed out at “so-called Christians” and used an epithet in describing them to a party official, according to a new book.

Mr. Trump’s anger was aroused after he stumbled in an appearance at Liberty University by referring to Second Corinthians as “Two Corinthians” as he was competing for the votes of evangelicals — traditionally critical to a Republican’s success in the Iowa caucuses — with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

Allies of Mr. Cruz’s, including Bob Vander Plaats, a well-known evangelical leader in Iowa, seized on the slip-up to taunt Mr. Trump.

According to a new book, “American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump,” by Tim Alberta, the chief political correspondent for Politico Magazine, Mr. Trump was incensed by Mr. Vander Plaats and others “hanging around with Ted,” and referred to them in the most vulgar of terms.

I’m curious to know exactly what Trump reportedly said, but I couldn’t find any longer reference to the president’s (alleged) words in a quick Google search.

Trump’s reported reference to “so-called Christians” is fascinating, especially considering how many of the president’s critics have used similar language to characterize him.

But the Times doesn’t elaborate on that reference or offer any additional context. This is a quick-hit political story, not an in-depth examination of faith in the Trump era.

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Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

I think that it’s safe to say that Jerry Falwell, Jr., has had a rough year or two.

I don’t say that as a cheap shot. I say that as someone who has followed the adventures of the Falwell family and Liberty University with great interest since the early 1980s, when elite newsrooms — The New Yorker came first, methinks — started paying serious attention to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Of course, there is a good reason for political reporters and others to dig into Falwell, Jr., affairs. His early decision to endorse Donald Trump, instead of Sen. Ted Cruz, helped create the loud minority of white evangelicals who backed The Donald in early primaries. Without them, including Falwell, Trump doesn’t become the nominee and then, in a lesser-of-two-evils race with Hillary Clinton, squeak into the White House.

So that leads us to a rather interesting — on several levels — piece of neo-tabloid journalism at the New York Times, with this headline: “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen.” The “evangelical,” of course, is Falwell.

Everything begins and ends with politics, of course, even in a story packed with all kinds of sexy whispers and innuendo about personal scandals. Thus, here is the big summary statement:

Mr. Falwell — who is not a minister and spent years as a lawyer and real estate developer — said his endorsement was based on Mr. Trump’s business experience and leadership qualities. A person close to Mr. Falwell said he made his decision after “consultation with other individuals whose opinions he respects.” But a far more complicated narrative is emerging about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the months before that important endorsement.

That backstory, in true Trump-tabloid fashion, features the friendship between Mr. Falwell, his wife and a former pool attendant at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach; the family’s investment in a gay-friendly youth hostel; purported sexually revealing photographs involving the Falwells; and an attempted hush-money arrangement engineered by the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen.

The revelations have arisen from a lawsuit filed against the Falwells in Florida; the investigation into Mr. Cohen by federal prosecutors in New York; and the gonzo-style tactics of the comedian and actor Tom Arnold.

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.

One key anonymous source? That’s right.

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