Here’s an old journalism saying that came up during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (please click here to tune that in). All together now: “It’s hard to cover a war when a general is signing your paycheck.”
That does this have to do with this past week’s GetReligion post about a much-discussed Washington Post piece about Jerry Falwell, Jr., Donald Trump and the student press? Click here for more background on that essay by former Liberty editor Will Young: “Thinking about Liberty University and decades of journalism struggles at private colleges.”
Publications operated by the military are, literally, providing news about the actions of their bosses. They are trying to cover their own publishers. The same thing is true at private colleges and universities. Student journalists (and, yes, their journalism professors) work for news organizations that ultimately answer to administration officials that they inevitably have to cover.
Things can get tense. But to understand the realities here, readers need to know a few facts. Here is a chunk of a Liberty University report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that frequently clashes with schools on the cultural left and right. Many critics call TheFIRE.org a conservative organization because of its defense of old-school First Amendment liberalism.
Note the first sentence here.
As a private university, Liberty is not legally bound by the First Amendment, and may decline to protect students’ free speech in favor of other institutional values. But for years, Falwell has publicly held out the university’s commitment to free expression as far superior to that which other institutions make — indeed, as among the very best in the nation and among the cornerstones of his institution.
Liberty’s policies, hidden from public view behind a password-protected web portal, are devoid of any written commitment that would effectuate its leadership’s proclamations. FIRE has acquired a copy, however, and determined that the policies provide Falwell and Liberty administrators with sweeping control over all manner of campus expression.
Here is another crucial passage:
Most concerning is the code’s dangerously broad “catch-all” provision, making “[c]onduct inconsistent with Liberty’s mission or purpose that compromises the testimony or reputation of the university, or disrupts Liberty’s Christian learning environment” punishable by a $500 fine and possible suspension. Because just about anything could fall under this policy, Liberty may censor whatever speech it wishes, and may suspend the speaker.
Let me stress, as I have in the past, that — as doctrinally defined private associations — religious colleges and universities have every right to create covenants that set standards for moral conduct and religious affirmations on their campuses.
However, what TheFIRE.org is asking is whether the full extent of these policies are openly shared with people who need to know the fine details — like students, parents and donors.
As I stress in the podcast, I know from personal experience as a “Jprof” that privacy laws and other unique private-school realities may affect efforts to teach real journalism — as opposed to public relations of generic communications.
So why teach journalism?
Well, looking at the matter theologically, it’s important to believe that the creation of culture — journalism, drama, fine arts, screenwriting, etc. — is a worthy calling for believers. Is God the God of all creation or not? Yes, we live in a sinful, fallen world. But why is journalism and other attempts at truth-telling such a scary academic challenge to so many college administrators (on the religious left and right)?
Meanwhile, how can religious colleges send communication majors out into the public square without learning a realistic, critical and, yes, constructive approach to journalism? As I have said many times here at GetReligion and elsewhere: Journalism will be improved by people who love journalism — not people who hate it.
Let me end with this comment by by friend Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher:
Granted, college newspapers are not the same kind of publication as an independent newspaper. It is not unusual or even wrong for colleges to exercise some kind of oversight and discipline of a campus paper. This is actually a necessary part of student journalists learning how to be professionals. But an institution ought to exercise that authority wisely. Assuming that Young is telling the truth about what happened at the college, what Falwell and his leadership team have completely neutered the newspaper and the School of Communication. If their new policies are as Young says, then it’s fair to ask of what value is a degree from the Liberty University School of Communication, aside from training in public relations?
Enjoy the podcast and pass it on (especially my fellow Jprofs).