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 ace 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. Backed with other contacts to make the source’s claims more trustworthy? Uh, no. With that in mind, let’s consider the wise advice of the pro-Times experts who produced that “Preserving Our Readers' Trust” document in 2005, after a major Gray Lady scandal.

Editors must be more energetic in pressing reporters to get that information on the record. They must also recognize that persuading reticent sources to put their names behind sensitive disclosures is not easy; it may slow the reporting.

When anonymity is unavoidable, reporters and editors must be more diligent in describing sources more fully. The basics include how the anonymous sources know what they know, why they are willing to provide the information and why they are entitled to anonymity.

The policy should be uniform and adhered to across all sections of the paper, honored in features as well as in hard news.

Note the material that I put in bold type.

What do we know about this crucial source in this Times report? Well, readers see a parade of references such as a “person close to Mr. Falwell,” “the person close to them, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity” and (this may be a different person) “someone who spoke to Mr. Falwell.” My favorite turn of phrase is this one, “… according to several people involved in the case. It was understood that …”

If you are interested in the alleged sexy Falwell photos — which may or may not exist and may or may not play a pivotal role in pushing Falwell, Jr., from Cruz to Trump — start here, with this recent post by our own Julia Duin: “Reuters: Evangelical kingpin Jerry Falwell Jr. sought to hide racy photos he sent to his wife?

The key to this new story — the fire underneath the sexy smoke — are details of an oh-so-South-Florida tale of a real estate deal gone bad. Let’s just say that the odds are good that alleged “verbal offers” by Falwell to someone struggling with a $34 million bankruptcy may not go well, in that part of the world.

This is where readers do get some truly surprising material that — for the most part — has made it into legal documents. How did Falwell family folks end up as big investors in a South Beach youth hostel tied to a restaurant and liquor store?

The Times team is handled colorful stuff and makes the most of it. A sample:

Earlier that year, Mr. Falwell and his wife, Becki, had stayed at the Fontainebleau — the grande dame of the Miami Beach hotel scene and a somewhat unlikely vacation spot for the chancellor of a university whose student code prohibited short skirts, coed dorm visits and sex outside of “biblically ordained” marriage.

Once a glamorous hangout for John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra and Elvis, the Fontainebleau was now the stomping grounds of the Kardashians, Paris Hilton and Lady Gaga, known for allowing topless sunbathing and for a cavernous nightclub that one travel guide described as “30,000 square feet of unadulterated fun.” 

At one point, it’s clear that some of the roots of this Times epic run back to this: “The Falwells’ involvement [in the hostel project] came to light in a 2017 Politico article by Brandon Ambrosino, a Liberty graduate.

Yes, Ambrosino is a Liberty man. Readers may also want to know that, in this context, he is best known as the author of this Atlantic piece: “Being Gay at Jerry Falwell's University.” Here’s a reflection from that:

“ … As I looked at his perfectly formed, muscular ass, I closed my eyes and asked myself, "Why would I, the world's most hypersexual fag, come to Jerry Falwell's university?!"

It's a typical story, really. Boy meets girl. Girl goes to college. Boy follows her to college. Girl decides to date other boys. Boy decides that's a good idea, and also dates other boys. Like I said, typical.

But back to the really important stuff — Trump-era politics. This is — #SURPRISE — where the Times makes it clear that evangelicals, as an American niche-group, are linked to this sleazy scandal through the Falwell-Trump union.

Prepare for a flashback to the past three years of American journalism:

There is no evidence that Mr. Falwell’s endorsement was part of a quid pro quo arranged by Mr. Cohen. Indeed, the relationship, if any, between the endorsement and the photo episode remains unclear.

However:

“… They add another layer to one of the enduring curiosities of the Trump era: the support the president has received from evangelical Christians, who have traditionally demanded that their political leaders exhibit “family values” and moral “character.” Mr. Falwell’s father forged those words into weapons against the Democrats after he co-founded the Moral Majority political movement, which propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House and made religious conservatives a vital constituency for any Republican who would be president.

So far so good. However, read this next part carefully:

By the time Republicans cast their first votes in 2016, Mr. Trump was starting to show surprising strength among some white evangelicals. But with Mr. Falwell serving as the torchbearer of his father’s legacy, his endorsement became a permission slip for deeply religious conservatives who were attracted by Mr. Trump’s promises to make America great again but wary of his well-known history of infidelity, his previous support of abortion rights and his admission that he had never asked for God’s forgiveness.

That started well, then veered into familiar straw-evangelical territory.

By all means, Falwell’s support was crucial — in part because it weakened Cruz, one of two or three candidates who already had strong mainstream evangelical support. Also, that first reference — “By the time Republicans cast their first votes in 2016…” — is appropriate, since it frames these events in the right context: The early GOP primaries.

But who are these “deeply religious conservatives “ who immediately follow Falwell into the Trump tent? Yes, it’s true that some “evangelicals” did help Trump creep from 28 percent or so to the mid-30s in some winner-take-all primaries.

But was this the evangelical mainstream? If that’s the case, why did Trump bomb with the strongest evangelical flocks in Iowa? Why has research since then shown that Falwell’s crucial early supporters were folks who self-identified as “evangelicals,” but were not all that solid in terms of church-going and other traits of evangelical life?

I recommend, again, that reporters dig into the book “Alientated America” by journalist Timothy P. Carney. Here is a piece of my “On Religion” column about some of its contents:

The most revealing faith-based numbers in this White House race came during the primaries, not in the "general election (when religious voters had only two choices, and the specter of Hillary Clinton hung over their heads)," wrote Carney. The question reporters need to keep asking is this: "Who gravitated immediately to Trump, and who turned to him only when the alternative was Hillary?"

Research into primary voting, he noted, revealed that the "more frequently a Republican reported going to church, the less likely he was to vote for Trump." In fact, Trump was weakest among believers who went to church the most and did twice as well among those who never went to church. "Each step DOWN in church attendance brought a step UP in Trump support," noted Carney.

Reporters could have seen this principle at work early on in Sioux County, Iowa, where half of the citizens claim Dutch ancestry. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, Sioux County has the highest percentage of evangelicals in Iowa. …

Trump didn't win a single Sioux County precinct in the Iowa caucuses.

So did Falwell’s early endorsement of Trump matter? Of course it did. It helped form a pro-Trump camp within the wider world of white conservative Protestants that is vaguely known as “evangelical.”

But was Falwell’s involvement really crucial in the general election? Is it fair to involve the vast majority of America’s white evangelicals in this strange dance down in South Florida?

That question leads to a more complex story (and Carney’s book is a great place to start, along with this Christianity Today poll analysis). To cover it, reporters need to look at a much bigger picture — one roughly the size of America’s bitter wars over the U.S. Supreme Court, abortion and the defense of both halves of the First Amendment.

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