The missing Jerry Falwell (updated)

FalwellCoverThis is hardly breaking news, but the late Pastor Jerry Falwell was a really funny guy, by which I mean funny in terms of humor. Many of the obits mentioned this fact and also mentioned that a wide variety of people actually liked the man. Falwell used to introduce the Rev. Mel White by saying something like this. "This is Mel White. He wrote my autobiography."

There's a kind of Yogi Berra flavor to that, don't you think? While they obviously had major differences in politics and doctrine, especially after White exited the closet and became one of America's most articulate gay-rights leaders, I have never talked to White about Falwell and not heard him express genuine affection for the proudly fundamentalist preacher.

I bring this up because the folks over at the "On Faith" site operated by Washington Post and Newsweek have an interesting little feature up right now with this non-newsy, but poignant headline: "The Real Jerry Falwell -- Mrs. Jerry Falwell says the image of her husband portrayed in the media over the years was virtually unrecognizable to her."

It will not surprise you to know that Macel Falwell has a new book out -- <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Jerry-Falwell-His-Life-Legacy/dp/141658028X/ref=pd_bbs_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1213234128&sr=1-1"Jerry Falwell: His Life and Legacy" -- and that this mini-essay is primarily intended as a plug for that. So be it. I still think it is interesting for mainstream journalists to be exposed to the opinions and even the feelings of people who have spent several decades on the other side of the notebook.

Take this slice of the "On Faith" piece, for example, where she stresses that there was more to this project for her than sharing 50 years of memories:

I also wrote the book so that I could set the record straight. There was an image of my husband portrayed in the media over the years that was virtually unrecognizable to me. He was not at all how they painted him. I want the world to get to know the man that I fell in love with, the most generous person I have ever known. He reached out to everyone in love, even when they did not show him kindness in return. Any money that was in his pockets when he left home in the morning was gone when he came home at night, because he enjoyed helping people who needed it. I learned to accept the fact that he would always come home with empty pockets, but he still managed to surprise me sometimes by coming home without his brand new coat or shoes, because he had given those away, too.

As the son of a Baptist minister, that speaks to me. Then again, I have also covered my share of religious broadcasters.

Still, I want to make a simple observation, one that I have made before here at GetReligion. I am much more interested in seeing this kind of information reported by journalists than shared as color details in a piece that will be viewed by most readers as mere personal opinion by a loved one.

Would you feel differently if, let's say, Newsweek had done a large piece on the complex legacy of this man and included hard reporting on his charitable works?

Yes, most readers would feel different about that and they would be right to feel different. Apples and oranges. But this is not to put down Mrs. Falwell or her book, or even "On Faith" for running this little blurb to point people toward the book.

But Falwell made news. If there are pieces of the puzzle that are missing in our understanding of this man, then I hope that the mainstream press gets them nailed down and reports them.

UPDATE: Today's Washington Times has a feature-author interview on the Macel Falwell book, offering the same basic approach. Let me know if you see anything interesting on it in, shall we say, a more unlikely frame.

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