President Donald Trump

Falwell Jr., Liberty University share GetReligion's post on Politico story — but did they actually read it?

Falwell Jr., Liberty University share GetReligion's post on Politico story — but did they actually read it?

Another bizarre twist in the Jerry Falwell Jr. story came Tuesday when the Liberty University president accused former board members and employees of an “attempted coup.”

That claim came a day after a long, negative Politico piece on Falwell quoted two dozen anonymous sources characterized as “current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell.”

How bad are things for Falwell and Liberty?

Well, both of their official Twitter accounts tweeted my GetReligion post from Monday in which I declared, “Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously.”

If you missed that post, you really should read it before finishing this one. What I am about to say will make much more sense with that background in mind. Also, that post has generated a lot of good discussion along with a few typical troll comments from people who obviously didn’t take time to read what I wrote.

Of course, a few folks on Twitter (here and here, for example) asked if Falwell and Liberty actually read what I wrote.

After all, my post was no fan letter to Falwell.

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

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.

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Friday Five: New AP religion journalists, NYT hit piece, Pulitzer donation, Randy Travis baptism

Friday Five: New AP religion journalists, NYT hit piece, Pulitzer donation, Randy Travis baptism

The Associated Press has hired four new religion journalists to join global religion editor Sally Stapleton as part of the team funded through that big Lilly grant announced earlier this year.

They are news editor Gary Fields, Islam reporter Miriam Fam, religion and politics reporter Elana Schor and investigative correspondent Michael Rezendes, who was part of the Boston Globe team featured in the movie “Spotlight” about the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal.

AP’s announcement follows Religion News Service’s recent additions — as part of the same Lilly grant — of Roxanne Stone as managing editor, Alejandra Molina as a national reporter covering Latinos and Claire Giangravè as Vatican reporter.

With the exception of Rezendes, none of the those hired is a familiar name to me. It’ll be interesting to watch their emergence on the Godbeat scene and hopefully meet some of them at the Religion News Association annual meeting in Las Vegas later this month.

In the meantime, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Our own Richard Ostling this week strongly endorsed Rachael Denhollander’s candid new memoir ”What Is a Girl Worth? published by evangelical Tyndale House.

Time magazine published an excerpt of the book in advance of its official release next Tuesday.

And for some excellent journalism on Denhollander, check out the Louisville Courier-Journal’s in-depth piece headlined “The Sacrifice: Rachael Denhollander surrendered her deepest secrets to help put Larry Nassar away.” Yes, there are important religion components throughout, as Ostling also noted.

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Tourism to Israel is up, and it's obviously because of President Trump, right? Well, let's talk about that ...

Tourism to Israel is up, and it's obviously because of President Trump, right? Well, let's talk about that ...

If you want an in-depth explanation of why “correlation does not imply causation,” you’ll need a more educated source than me.

But here’s what I will say about NPR’s weekend report linking evangelical support of President Trump with rising tourism numbers in Israel: Evidence to support that storyline seems a little squishy to me.

Or maybe a whole lot squishy. I’ll explain in a moment. But first, here’s how NPR sets the scene:

President Trump's evident desire to identify who's most "loyal" to Israel has a clear winner: U.S. evangelicals.

Not only do they outpace U.S. Jews in their support for policies that favor the Israeli government, but U.S. evangelicals have also become the fastest-growing sector of the Israeli tourism market. The developments may even be related.

"I'd say close to 100% of our travelers come back extremely pro-Israel in their political views," says Andy Cook, a pastor who leads evangelical tours of the Holy Land twice a year.

OK, that description of evangelicals as “the fastest-growing sector of the Israeli tourism market” certainly sounds authoritative. However, unless I missed it, NPR doesn’t provide any internet links or other hard data to back up that characterization.

Does actual data exist?

Or is that description attributable to a tourism official eager to tout evangelical travel to a reporter clearing wanting to make that connection?

Let’s read a little more:

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Friday Five: RNS staff hirings, LA Times death, Messiah Trump, Pete Buttigieg's faith, Chick-fil-A

Friday Five: RNS staff hirings, LA Times death, Messiah Trump, Pete Buttigieg's faith, Chick-fil-A

There’s news concerning that $4.9 million Lilly Endowment Inc. grant that will fund 13 new religion journalists at The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation.

RNS announced this week that it has hired three new journalists related to the grant: Roxanne Stone as managing editor, Alejandra Molina as a national reporter and Claire Giangravè as Vatican reporter.

In other Godbeat news, the Los Angeles Times reported on the death at age 76 of K. Connie Kang, a pioneering Korean American journalist:

Connie Kang covered religion in her final years at The Times. After leaving the paper in 2008, the deeply devout Christian decided to become a minister. She graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2017 and shortly after passed the U.S. Presbyterian Church’s ordination exam. Her dream was to build a Christian school in North Korea.

Finally, if you’re interested in how a leading religion journalist approaches her job, check out this podcast featuring the New York Times’ Elizabeth Dias.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

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Amid furor over Trump tweets, NPR visits two very different Friendship Baptist Churches in Virginia

Amid furor over Trump tweets, NPR visits two very different Friendship Baptist Churches in Virginia

NPR’s Sarah McCammon visited two Friendship Baptist Churches for a report that aired this week.

I loved the idea behind her story on congregations in the same state with the same name but different perspectives on President Donald Trump. And I mostly loved the implementation.

But before we delve into her feature, let’s start with the online headline: I’m not 100 percent sold on it.

Here it is:

In Virginia, 2 Churches Feel The Aftermath of Trump’s Racist Rhetoric

My problem with the headline is this: It labels Trump’s rhetoric — as a fact — as “racist.” I’m an old-school- enough journalist that I’d prefer the news organization simply report what Trump has said and let listeners/readers characterize it as racist. Or not.

I know I’m probably in the minority on this — evidence of that fact can be found here, here, here and here.

But back to the story itself: It opens this way:

A welcome sign on the way into town reads "Historic Appomattox: Where Our Nation Reunited." But here in Appomattox, where the Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, there are still reminders of division.

Not far away, a sign posted in front of Friendship Baptist Church reads "AMERICA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT."

Pastor Earnie Lucas said he posted that message on his church sign several weeks ago. It was around the same time that President Trump tweeted an attack on four Democratic members of Congress — all women of color — saying they should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came."

Lucas, 85, is white and has been a pastor in this community for decades. He defends his sign and expresses anger about the response it has received online and in news reports.

"Don't talk to me about that flag out yonder, or that sign out yonder!" he thundered from the pulpit. "This is America! And I love America!"

Lucas asks if anyone in the small, all-white congregation is "from Yankee land." No one raises their hand

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Potty-mouthed president, the sequel: Politico discovers that Trump likes to use dirty words

Potty-mouthed president, the sequel: Politico discovers that Trump likes to use dirty words

That was kind of a delayed reaction. Hang on a moment, and I’ll explain what I mean.

Three weeks ago, I wrote a post noting that a side issue had emerged at President Donald Trump’s infamous “Send her back!” rally in Greenville, N.C.

The controversy, as I noted, involved Trump’s choice of words.

Here’s how I opened that post:

If I told you that Donald Trump uttered a curse word, it probably wouldn’t surprise you.

We are talking, after all, about the future president caught on videotape uttering the famous “Grab-em-by-the-*****” line.

But how might Trump’s evangelical supporters react if the leader of the free world took God’s name in vain at a nationally televised politically rally?

That’s the intriguing — at first glance — plot in a Charlotte Observer news story.

So what brings us back to that same, profanity-laced subject?

That would be Politico, which has taken the story national with a relatively in-depth piece headlined “‘Using the Lord’s name in vain’: Evangelicals chafe at Trump’s blasphemy.”

Here’s Politico’s overture:

Paul Hardesty didn’t pay much attention to President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., last month until a third concerned constituent rang his cellphone.

The residents of Hardesty’s district — he’s a Trump-supporting West Virginia state senator — were calling to complain that Trump was “using the Lord’s name in vain,” Hardesty recounted.

“The third phone call is when I actually went and watched his speech because each of them sounded distraught,” Hardesty, who describes himself as a conservative Democrat, said.

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The liberal reporter and the conservative pastor: Inside Texas Monthly's big story on 'Trump's Apostle'

The liberal reporter and the conservative pastor: Inside Texas Monthly's big story on 'Trump's Apostle'

Social media went nuts this week — overwhelmingly positive nuts — over the official trailer for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a film starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers that will hit theaters just in time for Thanksgiving.

As Esquire notes, “The film is based on a profile of Mr. Rogers that journalist Tom Junod wrote for Esquire in 1998. In the film, Matthew Rhys plays a fictionalized version of the writer, embarking upon the profile of the kids television icon with initial reluctance before forging a friendship with his subject, the true guru of pretty much everything that’s good in the world.”

Hmmmm, a movie about the relationship that develops between a journalist and his subject.

Perhaps this formula could work for a future movie about Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas and a leading evangelical adviser to President Donald Trump.

Except that — when Hollywood tells Jeffress’ story — he’s not likely to be portrayed as “the true guru of pretty much everything that’s good in the world.” Instead, think Dick Cheney in “Vice.”

The basis for the Jeffress screenplay? The big screen could do worse than Texas Monthly’s long August cover story on “Trump’s Apostle.”

Writer Michael J. Mooney sets the scene this way:

Here’s Robert Jeffress, talking to the hundreds of thousands of people watching conservative cable news on a typical Friday evening, and he’s defending President Donald Trump against the latest array of accusations in the news this week. And he isn’t simply defending Trump—he’s defending him with one carefully crafted Bible-wrapped barb after another, and with more passion, more preparation, more devotion than anyone else on television.

As Lou Dobbs finishes his opening remarks, Jeffress laughs and nods. It’s early January, about two weeks into what will prove to be the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are missing paychecks, worrying about mortgages, car payments, utility bills. Some have started going to food banks. But Dobbs waves his hand up and down and tells Jeffress that he hasn’t heard anyone—“literally no one!”—say they miss the government. The jowly host revels in Trump’s threats that the shutdown could continue “for months, if not years,” if that’s what it takes to get more wall built on America’s border with Mexico.

Jeffress, speaking from a remote studio in downtown Dallas, agrees completely. “Well, he’s doing exactly the right thing in keeping this government shut down until he gets that wall,” he says.

Jeffress is the senior pastor at First Baptist Dallas, a 13,000-member megachurch that’s one of the most influential in the country, but he’s known best for appearances like this one: he’s often on Fox & Friends or Hannity or any number of sound-bitey segments on Fox News or Fox Business. His own religious show airs six days a week on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. He has a daily radio program too, broadcast on more than nine hundred Christian stations across the country, though it’s TV he loves best. Dobbs invites Jeffress onto his show nearly every week.

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Washington Post goes to church in Greenville, N.C., and offers some nuance about Trump's rally

Washington Post goes to church in Greenville, N.C., and offers some nuance about Trump's rally

There’s been a lot of talk (you think?) about President Donald Trump’s rally last week in Greenville, N.C.

You know, the one where the crowd chanted “Sent her back! Send her back!” in regard to U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.

Well, the furor over the rally prompted the Washington Post to go to church — in Greenville.

The result? Pretty good, actually.

Here’s how the Post frames its news-feature:

GREENVILLE, N.C. — The Rev. Stephen Howard knew President Trump’s speech was going to be unsettling for his city and his mostly black church the moment he saw people had lined up at 4 a.m. Wednesday to get into the arena. 

These were his congregants’ neighbors and co-workers. Soon, they would be cheering for a president whom Howard and many of his flock at Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church considered a racist. He knew he would have to say something.

“I’m not into politics, but I’m into speaking for people,” he said.

Across town, Brad Smith, the pastor at a 192-year-old predominantly white Baptist church, got his first inkling that something had gone wrong when his wife returned home from the speech. She was there as an employee of East Carolina University, where the rally was held, and was shaken by the anger in the auditorium.

“It was bad,” she told him. “Really bad.”

And then we get to the next paragraph:

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