Falwell, Trump and the Christian college press: Yes, some leaders prefer PR over hard news

So what, precisely, is the history of that famous -- some would say cynical -- quote about the freedom of the press and who gets to exercise that right and who does not?

I'm referring to something that I ad-libbed into this week's Crossroads podcast. This week's discussion with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in) focuses on the mini-media storm about Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., and his decision to quash a column critical of Donald Trump (his "locker-room" remarks about women, to be precise) in the campus newspaper, The Champion.

You can find several versions of the quote, as demonstrated by this entry at the "Quote Investigator" website:

(1) Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.
(2) Freedom of the press is confined to the people who own one.
(3) Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.
(4) Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

As often happens in live recording sessions, when one is 60-something years old, I could not remember the person who originated this famous quotation, whatever it is. I almost said "H. L. Mencken," which appears to be a common mistake. The folks at Quote Investigator noted:

An exact match to the fourth expression was printed in the “The New Yorker” magazine in 1960. A.J. Liebling wrote an essay titled “The Wayward Press: Do You Belong in Journalism?” that included the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
"The best thing Congress could do to keep more newspapers going would be to raise the capital-gains tax to the level of the income tax. (Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.) There are irresistible reasons for a businessman either to buy or to sell, and anybody who owns the price of a newspaper nowadays must be a businessman."

Ah, but note that this quote is between parentheses. Was he paraphrasing something he read elsewhere? The QI team noted that there are similar ideas in articles a few decades earlier.

What does this have to do with Falwell, Liberty and the anti-Trump column?

In my earlier post, and in the podcast, I noted that private schools -- left and right -- are free to place all kinds of limitations on what happens in student media. These schools own and operate their student newspapers and, in this scenario at Liberty, Falwell is functioning as publisher, especially at a school where his family name is so central to the school's brand and history.

In its article on this case, Inside Higher Ed sought input from Frank D. LoMonte of the the Student Press Law Center:

"Of course, Liberty is a private university not subject to First Amendment constraints, but the best private universities voluntarily maintain a hands-off policy respectful of the integrity of independent journalism. Leaving aside the civic and educational benefits of fostering critical-thinking skills on a college campus, it's just self-defeating in the year 2016 to think you can suppress unwanted ideas by tearing articles out of paper newspapers. When you censor an article in the 21st century, you're just guaranteeing it a wider audience. I doubt many 20-year-old sports columnists are being read across the country, but by censoring Joel's column, the university has exponentially increased its impact. There's nothing more irresistible than journalism powerful authority figures don't want you to read."

Amen. The only thing I would add is that I have some doubts about what actually happens at the "best private universities" on these matters (and even at some state schools). This is especially true, in my experience, when campus administrators deal with cases involving what I called the "unholy trinity" of hot-button issues -- sex (think discipline cases involving students and/or faculty), drugs and donors. (Yes, in the earlier discussions I said/wrote "sex, finances and donors." I'm amending that.)

The key point I want to make, once again, is this: As LoMonte said, Falwell had the right to do what he did and many campus leaders share his point of view. When push comes to shove, lots of powerful people prefer PR over hard news. But is this PR default a wise choice in terms of journalism education? As I wrote in the original post:

As a journalism professor, I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Liberty student journalists had actually attempted to report a legitimate news story on the same topic, going out of their way to interview campus voices on both sides of the Falwell-Trump story.
Would Liberty administrators have agreed to be interviewed for such a story? Would that have been spiked? Also, what would have happened if student editors had chosen to print the offending column in a debate format, with another student journalist arguing the opposite point of view? Would Falwell have allowed that?

I'll confess my bias once again, as an educator who has taught (and advised newspapers) on two Christian college campuses and as someone who has worked with students and faculty at 50-plus of these schools. When it dealing with controversial issues, I have always pushed students to try to write hard-news stories on these topics, rather than resorting to splashy editorial columns based on their own opinions. Reporting comes first, then opinions.

As I have shared in the past, I was a participant in one of these campus-press fights in my student days at Baylor in the 1970s. That controversy focused on student news reporting about cases of sexual assault on or near campus.

Back in 2004, Baylor was back in the headlines (Texas journalists love stories about Baylor and sex) when student journalists published an editorial opposing the school's stance on gay marriage.

Yes, it was an editorial, not a news story.

Thus, in an "On Religion" column I offered the following commentary, after introducing this case study. This is long, but I would argue that it's relevant to the Liberty case:

Let's say that the students did not settle for writing an editorial about one of the most divisive issues in American culture. This quick-strike strategy was almost certainly a trial balloon seeking headlines in Texas and national newspapers.
Let's say that, instead of writing that easy editorial, the editors assigned their best reporters to write two news stories.
Like any religious institution in the era after James Davison Hunter's book "Culture Wars," Baylor has its own "camp of the progressives" (truth is personal and experiential) and a competing "camp of the orthodox" (truth is eternal and absolute). This is what the ongoing Baylor academic warfare is all about -- clashing views of what truth is and how one finds it.
That's a good news story, if journalists take the time to report it.
So let's say that the Lariat devotes one 1,200-word story to the views of Baylor "progressives," who explain why they think changing U.S. laws to favor same-sex marriage is a good thing. They also explain how this change might affect public education, free speech, freedom of assembly and religious liberty. They say what they have to say -- on the record.
Then the newspaper devotes another 1,200-word story to the views of the "orthodox," those who believe that America should not embrace a fundamental redefinition of marriage. They address all the same questions – on the record.
After these stories run, the editors might want to write an editorial. On an issue this hot, it would certainly help to hear dissenting voices as well.
I think this is a more journalistic approach. After all, what's the purpose of having student journalists write editorials that cause news, before they have gone through the process of writing stories that report the news?
I also think this approach would create a different kind of controversy, a more constructive kind. Instead of fostering academic guerrilla warfare and media stereotypes, this would put more information on the record.
It might even lead to informed debate. And note that this approach would require leaders on both sides to put their views out in the open for the world to see -- including regents, donors, parents and potential students.
This candor would be a good thing, at Baylor and in lots of other religious camps.

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