World Magazine printed an exposé of censorship of Liberty University’s student newspaper last week, a rare instance of public criticism from a conservative Christian media outlet for the evangelical powerhouse run by Jerry Falwell, Jr. Today, Falwell published what he called a “rebuttal” at the right-wing outlet Newsmax.
But what Falwell calls a rebuttal doesn’t address most of the substance of the World article, including the fact that two student editors of the Liberty Champion paper deemed either too journalism-minded, or insufficiently deferential to Falwell, were purged—the school says “reorganized” out of their positions. For the editor-in-chief, his firing meant the loss of scholarship funds that came with the job.
Falwell has been among the most sycophantic of Trump’s evangelical supporters, and that was apparently the source of some tension between him and the newspaper’s editorial staff, World reported:
Tension between the newspaper and Falwell emerged in 2016: To the dismay of some Champion staffers, he strongly endorsed Donald Trump. Falwell began reviewing prior to publication Champion articles that mentioned Trump. On one occasion, he made Champion editors end opinion pieces with a note on how they were voting. Opinion writer Jordan Jarrett chose not to and found a note under her published article: “The writer refused to reveal which candidate she is supporting for president.”
In October 2016, The Washington Post released a 2005 recording of Trump describing advances he’d made on women. Sports editor Joel Schmieg wrote a column for the Champion criticizing Trump’s locker room talk, but Falwell told Schmieg’s editor not to run it. Falwell said the newspaper had one article about Trump that week, so Schmieg’s piece was redundant.
Frustrated, Schmieg posted it on his Facebook page, and Champion graduate assistant Nate Haywood approached Schmieg on behalf of Champion adviser Deborah Huff, warning him not to do anything like that again. Instead, Schmieg resigned: “I didn’t feel comfortable being told what I couldn’t write about by President Falwell.”
In another Trumpian touch, students working on the newspaper staff who receive scholarships must now sign nondisclosure agreements, which include provisions against commenting on social media “about any publication of the Liberty Champion or its affiliated communication services.”
In his Newsmax piece, Falwell claims that one of the faculty members quoted in the World article, Dean of the School of Communication and Digital Content Bruce Kirk, “spoke for himself” and not “as a spokesman for the university, nor as a spokesman for me.”
Falwell’s claim is not very convincing, given that the remarks in question (recorded by a student) were made at a meeting called by the university administration, at which Kirk referred to his role as dean and asserted that the student journalists are beholden to the university and should approach their jobs with the starting point being “What’s going to happen that is positive for Liberty?” Kirk compared the university to a family business, founded by Jerry Falwell Sr. and handed down to his son.
In his non-rebuttal rebuttal at Newsmax, Falwell touts the university’s successes and says he has approved op-ed debates on both sides of controversial issues. Says Falwell, “My only goal in the recent restructuring was to take me out of the mix and instead delegate all editorial decisions to a faculty member.”