Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously

Undoubtedly, many critics of Jerry Falwell Jr. will love Politico’s long takedown of the controversial Liberty University president.

On Twitter, Jonathan Merritt, for example, called the piece published today a “blistering investigative report” for which the author should win an award.

“It's impossible to pick just one thing to highlight in this … cascade of scoops,” said Ruth Graham.

I’m no Falwell fan myself, and I’d be inclined to agree with the tweets above, except for one major, glaring concern: The writer relies almost entirely on anonymous sources.

“‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’,” screams Politico’s headline. “Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence.”

But they don’t really break their silence — in terms of going on the record and criticizing Falwell.

Politico sets the scene like this:

At Liberty University, all anyone can talk about is Jerry Falwell Jr. Just not in public.

“When he does stupid stuff, people will mention it to others they consider confidants and not keep it totally secret,” a trusted adviser to Falwell, the school’s president and chancellor, told me. “But they won’t rat him out.”

That’s beginning to change.

Over the past year, Falwell, a prominent evangelical leader and supporter of President Donald Trump, has come under increasing scrutiny. News outlets have reported on business deals by Liberty University benefiting Falwell’s friends. Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen claimed that he had helped Falwell clean up racy “personal” photographs.

Based on scores of new interviews and documents obtained for this article, concerns about Falwell’s behavior go well beyond that—and it’s causing longtime, loyal Liberty University officials to rapidly lose faith in him.

More than two dozen current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell spoke to me or provided documents for this article, opening up—for the first time at an institution so intimately associated with the Falwell family—about what they’ve experienced and why they don’t think he’s the right man to lead Liberty University or serve as a figurehead in the Christian conservative movement.

That’s a lot of sources, yes. But they’d have much more credibility if they had names attached to them. On-the-record sources with names attached have more skin in the game than those granted carte blanche to say whatever they want without their names attached. That’s basic Journalism 101 reality.

Yet Politico relies on one anonymous source after another. In fact, by my count, the quote used in the title belongs to the eighth unnamed source quoted in the piece:

But even those who fear have their breaking points.

In speaking out, said one longtime current university employee with close ties to the school’s first family, “I feel like I’m betraying them in some way. But someone’s gotta tell the freakin’ truth.”

“We’re talking about the difference between right and wrong,” a current high-ranking university official said. “Not even ‘being a Christian,’ but being a good person, versus people who manipulate the system”

For those eager to believe the worst about Falwell, perhaps on-the-record sourcing doesn’t matter. And certainly, Politico goes out of its way to justify granting sources anonymity:

But these new revelations speak to rising discontent with Falwell’s stewardship. The people interviewed for this article include members of Liberty’s board of trustees, senior university officials, and rank-and-file staff members who work closely with Falwell. They are reluctant to speak out—there’s no organized, open dissent to Falwell on campus—but they said they see it as necessary to save Liberty University and the values it once stood for. They said they believe in the Christian tradition and in the conservative politics at the heart of Liberty’s mission. Many knew Jerry Falwell Sr. and remember him with clear affection. “The day that man died was the day I lost a father,” one current university official said. All count themselves as conservatives. Many are strong supporters of Trump.

That cloak of anonymity extends even to allowing sources to allege that Falwell has bragged about his penis size.

When I voiced my concern about the story, a longtime journalist whom I respect pushed back: “Unnamed sources prove necessary in covering closed societies e.g. the Holy See, the Soviet-era Kremlin, and half of Africa. Question is whether Falwell U fits that category and whether writer is straight with readers in characterizing such sources and weighing possible biases.”

Agreed.

And ultimately, individual readers will have to judge the piece for themselves. For many, the verdict may come down to where one stands politically and religiously. Falwell fans, I presume, will be less inclined to accept anonymous statements as fact.

Certainly, it should be stressed, too, that Politico’s piece contains a fair amount of on-the-record material that seems to support its case that Falwell is a greedy hypocrite more in love with power and politics than a crucified savior who washed people’s feet.

But as an old-school journalist, I just can’t get past the lack of sourcing.

To me, three on-the-record sources would be much more credible than 20-plus anonymous ones. The writer expects readers to trust him when he says that a source is “a trusted adviser to Falwell,” “a senior university official with inside knowledge,” a “current high-level employee of the school” and so on and so on.

Indeed, all those descriptions sound great. But they’d sound much better — and be much more credible — with real names attached to them. Readers could also use specific information about how long these people have held the jobs that give them access and credibility.

Agree? Disagree? By all means, comment below. To the extent possible, please keep the discussion focused on journalism and media questions, not your feelings about Falwell or Trump.

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