More intrigue at Liberty University over free speech, followed by more blurring of news and opinion

It's the story that everybody's talking about.

I'm referring to Jonathan Merritt's intriguing piece in The Atlantic on "Why Liberty University Kicked an Anti-Trump Christian Author Off Campus":

"That Liberty incident is really interesting," said a tipster who emailed me. "Merritt column scoops have a way of turning into actual news. Or did someone get to this one before him?"

Indeed, Merritt's column is a mixture of straight-news reporting and first-person opinion, some of it negative toward Liberty. That's a fact, not a criticism. The column is definitely worth reading.

But to the question: Did Merritt break news yet again in a commentary piece?

Not this time, if I'm reading the time stamps correctly on other stories. It looks like The News & Advance, the newspaper in Lynchburg, Va., published the first report on the latest Trump-era controversy at Liberty:

The lede from the Virginia paper:

Jonathan Martin, an evangelical pastor and author, claims he was removed from Liberty University on Monday night following a pop concert and threatened with arrest should he return to campus.
A citation signed at 10:05 p.m. by an LU officer, images of which later were posted on social media by Martin, show he was removed by request but does not make clear who requested his removal from campus.
Martin recently caught the attention of Liberty students -- and seemingly campus officials -- when he spoke against LU President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s support for President Donald Trump’s administration.
Martin criticized Falwell on Twitter after Falwell gave an interview to Breitbart, a conservative news organization commanded by Steve Bannon, a former White House adviser who resigned in August.
In the interview, Falwell said voters need to oust “fake Republicans” in order to allow the Trump administration to be successful and endorsed Roy Moore, an Alabama Senate candidate. Two articles ran online last week.
Bannon and Trump have backed Moore in the upcoming election in Alabama, and Falwell has been a longtime Trump ally, first endorsing him in January 2016 as a GOP presidential candidate.

NPR writer Sarah McCammon also covered the story:

So why make a distinction between the objective reporting of certain outlets and the opinionated nature of Merritt's column?

Just for this reason: GetReligion has always advocated a traditional American model of journalism that strives to be fair to all sides, with sources of information clearly attributed and -- this is the main difference -- in which the writer does not take a stance or voice opinions. He/she strives to remain impartial.

That's not the case in the Merritt piece, which begins with straight news but ends with the writer's position on the events:

Liberty is a private university, so I don’t have an inherent right to speak there. And Martin doesn’t have a right to use its property for his protest. But these kinds of crackdowns undermine Liberty’s claim to be a nationally competitive and non-partisan university with a commitment to the free exchange of ideas.
“Liberty treated me like a criminal, which gets right at the heart of the cancer of the Trump phenomenon and its evangelical supporters,” Martin told me. “One of the reasons that so many evangelicals are drawn to Trump is because we have a lot of authoritarian leaders ourselves. We’re drawn to these kinds of leaders because we’ve formed our people in this way.”
Martin says he “absolutely” plans to return to Lynchburg to finish what he set out to accomplish. In fact, he said he feels emboldened by what transpired: “What happened last night reiterated the very reason I wanted to organize something to begin with.”
Conservative Christians often complain about so-called liberal “snowflakes” being intolerant of differing views on secular campuses. The question for leaders like Falwell is whether they are willing to do unto others as they would have others do unto their fellow Christians.

It's a free country. Merritt has every right to voice his opinion. After all, he did his undergraduate work at Liberty.

But readers would do well to be discerning and recognize what is fact and what is opinion in the changing U.S. media landscape. That's the point. It's not good for news stories to start off in hard-news form and then evolve into commentary.

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