Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. has a habit of spiking stories in the school’s student newspaper if he doesn’t like what it says. It’s the kind of oversight and control of the media Donald Trump could only dream of.
Earlier this year, Falwell told a student not to cover a local rally (which some Liberty students were attending) because it focused on progressive Christians who followed the words of Jesus. (Not real Christianity like they practice at the school…) Falwell’s excuse for killing the coverage? “That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.”
In 2016, when a student wrote a piece before the elections denouncing Trump, Falwell killed that, too. This is the same Falwell who, in 2009, shut down a club for campus Democrats (even though they were anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ rights) because it involved supporting candidates whose platforms were “contrary to the mission of LU and to Christian doctrine.”
So opinions are okay, unless Falwell disagrees with it, and reporting is okay, unless Falwell doesn’t want to cover something, and your existence on the campus is allowed, unless it runs afoul of Falwell’s personal political views. That’s not journalism. That’s just PR for the school’s brand of ultra-conservative Christianity. Above all, it’s not truthful. This is “fake news” in practice since objectivity is out the window in favor of publishing only the things Dear Leader approves.
That may be okay for Falwell, but those students are working for the newspaper because they genuinely care about journalism.
Well. WORLD, a Christian publication, did something Liberty students aren’t allowed to do: They wrote a fair article about the newspaper at Liberty that shines a disturbing light on the pseudo-journalism students are forced to practice.
The best part? Junior Jack Panyard, at one time the next Editor-in-Chief of the paper before he was unceremoniously fired, decided to record his conversations with Bruce Kirk, the dean of the School of Communication and Digital Content.
Oh, this gets good…
Later, Kirk spoke of the story about [the progressive group] 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?’”
At another time, Kirk was caught telling students they’re not there to do actual reporting:
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?”
That’s how they do journalism there: It all circles back to whether it makes Liberty look good, not whether its based on truth, albeit from a Christian perspective.
A lot of Liberty’s biggest critics have always said the school shouldn’t be taken seriously because critical thinking isn’t valued there. They promote Creationism. They promote a David Barton version of history that’s loose on facts and heavy on Christian revisionism. They don’t want students to doubt anything — not faith, not their must-be-hetero sexual orientation, not the Trump-inspired GOP platform, etc. And now we know the critics were right. Even the students whose job is supposed to be locating the truth and informing the masses are punished when their journalism conflicts with whatever myth Falwell wants to perpetuate.
We knew Liberty was a joke — and this only contributes to that theory — but you have to feel bad for some of these students who went to Liberty hoping to become serious journalists. (Some of them, I assume, went because they’re devout Christians and felt Liberty would be a good fit for them. Others may have gone only because they were pressured into it by their parents and had no other choice.) Based on their reporting, though, they were pretty damn good at it.
Unfortunately, they’re being stifled by the very people who are supposed to help them grow.
Journalism is all about asking questions, doing research, and following the reporting wherever it leads. But Falwell’s form of Christianity is about having answers from the beginning and never straying from the predetermined narrative. It’s a conflict that normal schools don’t have because journalistic ethics win out. Not at Liberty, though, where everything is always an advertisement for the school, including the now-discredited “news”paper.
Here’s hoping those students can find writing jobs elsewhere, where they have mentors who actually know what they’re doing. They’re not getting the education they need from Liberty.