The Champion

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

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:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Falwell, Trump and the Christian college press: Yes, some leaders prefer PR over hard news

Falwell, Trump and the Christian college press: Yes, some leaders prefer PR over hard news

So what, precisely, is the history of that famous -- some would say cynical -- quote about the freedom of the press and who gets to exercise that right and who does not?

I'm referring to something that I ad-libbed into this week's Crossroads podcast. This week's discussion with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in) focuses on the mini-media storm about Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., and his decision to quash a column critical of Donald Trump (his "locker-room" remarks about women, to be precise) in the campus newspaper, The Champion.

You can find several versions of the quote, as demonstrated by this entry at the "Quote Investigator" website:

(1) Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.
(2) Freedom of the press is confined to the people who own one.
(3) Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.
(4) Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

As often happens in live recording sessions, when one is 60-something years old, I could not remember the person who originated this famous quotation, whatever it is. I almost said "H. L. Mencken," which appears to be a common mistake. The folks at Quote Investigator noted:

An exact match to the fourth expression was printed in the “The New Yorker” magazine in 1960. A.J. Liebling wrote an essay titled “The Wayward Press: Do You Belong in Journalism?” that included the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
"The best thing Congress could do to keep more newspapers going would be to raise the capital-gains tax to the level of the income tax. (Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.) There are irresistible reasons for a businessman either to buy or to sell, and anybody who owns the price of a newspaper nowadays must be a businessman."

Ah, but note that this quote is between parentheses. Was he paraphrasing something he read elsewhere? The QI team noted that there are similar ideas in articles a few decades earlier.

What does this have to do with Falwell, Liberty and the anti-Trump column?

Please respect our Commenting Policy