Thinking about Liberty University and decades of journalism struggles at private colleges

Over the past week or so, I have received a steady stream of email asking me to comment on a recent essay in The Washington Post that focused on an always touchy subject — efforts to do journalism education on private college campuses.

You wouldn’t know that’s what the essay is about if you merely scanned the headline — which offers your typical Donald-Trump-era news hook. The article is better than this headline.

Inside Liberty University’s ‘culture of fear’

How Jerry Falwell Jr. silences students and professors who reject his pro-Trump politics.

Yes, Trump plays a role in this piece, and I am sure that Falwell’s over-the-top loyalty to the president is causing lots of tension at Liberty. However, that isn’t the main source of conflict in this article.

The main problem? Like many private schools (and even a few state schools), Liberty — on academic paper — says that it has a “journalism” program. The problem is what top administrators actually want is a public relations program that prepares students to work in Christian nonprofit groups, think tanks and advocacy publications.

This is a problem that is much bigger than Liberty. I have encountered this syndrome on campuses that are left of center as well as those on the right, during a quarter-century of so of teaching students at (or from) Christian colleges. More than a few college leaders — like Falwell — don’t want parents, donors and trustees reading student-written news material about real life on their campuses.

Real life? Here is the issue that I always use as my line in the sand, when studying conflicts about college journalism programs: Will school officials allow news reports about issues that produce public documents, like police reports?

Sure enough, that’s where former Liberty University journalist Will Young begins his Post essay. This is long, but essential:

In my first week as editor in chief of the Champion, Liberty University’s student-run weekly, our faculty adviser, Deborah Huff, ordered me to apologize. I’d noticed that our evangelical school’s police department didn’t publish its daily crime log online, as many other private university forces do, so I searched elsewhere for crime information I might use in an article. I called the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators to find out what the law required Liberty to disclose. But the public affairs worker there told the Liberty University Police Department, which complained to Huff. She called to upbraid me: Apparently, I had endangered our newspaper’s relationship with the LUPD. Huff and Chief Richard Hinkley convened a meeting inside a police department conference room, and Huff sat next to me while I proffered the forced apology to Hinkley — for asking questions. Huff, too, was contrite, assuring the police chief that it wouldn’t happen again, because she’d keep a better eye on me.

This wasn’t exactly a rude awakening. I’d spent the previous three years watching the university administration, led by President Jerry Falwell Jr. (who took a very micromanaging interest), meddle in our coverage, revise controversial op-eds and protect its image by stripping damning facts from our stories. Still, I stuck around. I thought that if I wrote with discretion and kept my head down, I could one day win enough trust from the university to protect the integrity of our journalism. I even dreamed we could eventually persuade the administration to let the Champion go independent from its supervision. I was naive.

There are all kinds of issues lurking in there. The ones I care about are linked to journalism education that strives to teach students how to work in mainstream news.

To be blunt: I believe that it is in the interest of high-quality Christian colleges to offer as much press freedom as they can, while taking into account the kinds of privacy issues that shape life on private, faith-defined campuses. Over the years, I have told my students: "There may be stories we cannot cover here, but there are no subjects we cannot find a way to cover."

Stories that cannot be covered? I am primarily talking about issues linked to student discipline (as well as the hiring and firing of faculty) that are affected by privacy laws. It’s hard to do solid journalism when administrators (even those who WANT to cooperate with student journalists) cannot publicly respond to questions about the departures of students or faculty.

Fact is, journalism professors will have to spike some features on these topics because (a) they are poorly done and do not prove what they claim to prove or (b) they are actually opinion pieces with almost zero hard-news content. I am assuming that journalism professors play some leadership role in teaching reporting and editing, not that professors screen news copy to make sure it meets public-relations standards set by administrators.

That takes us back to the Post essay by Young:

… When my team took over that fall of 2017, we encountered an “oversight” system — read: a censorship regime — that required us to send every story to Falwell’s assistant for review. Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article; they added and deleted whatever they wanted. Falwell called our newsroom on multiple occasions to direct our coverage personally, as he had a year earlier when, weeks before the 2016 election, he read a draft of my column defending mainstream news outlets and ordered me to say whom I planned to vote for. I refused on ethical grounds, so Falwell told me to insert “The author refused to reveal which candidate he is supporting for president” at the bottom of the column. I complied. (Huff and the police department declined to comment on the contents of this essay. Falwell and the university did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Eventually I quit, and the School of Communication decided not to replace me, turning the paper into a faculty-run, student-written organ and seizing complete control of its content. Student journalists must now sign a nondisclosure agreement that forbids them from talking publicly about “editorial or managerial direction, oversight decisions or information designated as privileged or confidential.”

Basically, Liberty leaders have decided that they do not want to have a journalism program. At the same time, it’s hard to figure out — reading the Post essay — how many of the problems there centered on news stories as opposed to student opinion columns.

Does that matter? Yes it does. In my experience, about 90 percent of problems in Christian college newspapers are caused by editorials written by students who were either too lazy or who lacked the skills to do the real journalism required to write fair, accurate stories about VALID NEWS TOPICS linked to their schools. It's so much easier to spout opinion and then shout "press freedom." Students then get to be hero/martyrs.

Is that what happened at Liberty? It would appear that the conflicts there centered on real news (remember those police-report clashes) as well as opinion.

If schools will let qualified journalism professors do their jobs, it’s possible for students to learn how to do solid, factual stories about tough subjects. Journalism is hard work, but students can get the job done — if administrators are willing to work with them.

I have seen a few cases -- maybe three -- when students wanted to cover real stories but were stopped for the following reason: Because of privacy issues/laws, the school's leaders could not actually SAY why they had taken some of their actions (often these stories involved fired faculty members and their conduct). Only one side can offer its version of the facts, and the school is silenced by state laws.

That's a mess. I have only personally been involved, as a journalism professor, in two cases like that. I was able to work with the students, and cooperative administrators, to produce stories about THE SUBJECTS behind these controversies, even if we could not deal with specific cases for legal reasons.

Once again, the following emerges as an important question: Will a school's administration let students cover a story that begins with an actual police report?

One more point needs to be made: I tell students that all newsrooms -- left and right -- have sacred cows that editors or publishers decline to cover. Learning to do as much valid journalism as you can under difficult circumstances is a valuable skill and, sadly, one almost all journalists will need to know.

Yes, I am passionate about this issue because I am a journalism professor. However, I also was — long ago — a student journalist at Baylor University who was silenced (along with several others) while trying to do valid coverage of crime and safety issues linked to our campus. We were not spouting opinions. We were working with fantastic journalism professors to do hard-news coverage.

You can sense some of the lessons I learned back then in the following “On Religion” column I wrote in 2004, with this headline: “Baylor, same-sex marriage and ink.” Here is the whole column.

Every decade or so Baylor University endures another media storm about Southern Baptists, sex and freedom of the press.

Take, for example, the historic 1981 Playboy controversy. It proved that few journalists can resist a chance to use phrases such as "seminude Baylor coeds pose for Playboy."

Right now, all kinds of people — from the New York Times editorial board to Baptist Press — are hyperventilating about a Baylor student newspaper editorial backing same-sex marriage.

By a 5-2 vote, the Lariat editors concluded: "Just as it isn't fair to discriminate against someone for their skin color, heritage or religious beliefs, it isn't fair to discriminate against someone for their sexual orientation. Shouldn't gay couples be allowed to enjoy the benefits and happiness of marriage, too?"

I know how these Baylor dramas tend to play out, because in the mid-1970s there was another blowup in which students tried to write some dangerously candid news reports. In that case, I was one of the journalism students who got caught in the crossfire.

It's interesting to note that some of the administrators who crushed us back then are often hailed in the media these days as enlightened, progressive voices at Baylor. Meanwhile, the current Baylor administration expressed outrage at the editorial, but did not sack anyone. Times change.

This latest controversy about Baptists, sex and journalism comes in the midst of national headlines focusing on scandals in the Baylor basketball program and bitter divisions in the faculty over what is and what is not "Christian education."

There's valid news in all of this. But I also think there are lessons to be learned about the tensions between journalists and religious leaders.

So let's pause and consider a different scenario for this new Baylor brouhaha.

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.

So here is my final question, as a battle-scarred veteran of the journalism wars at Baylor and in other religious sanctuaries. Which side would oppose this open, on-the-record, journalistic scenario? The progressives or the orthodox?

Thoughts? Comments from other professors and school leaders?

Please respect our Commenting Policy