Biblical truth-telling at college newspapers can sometimes conflict with the way administrators want to portray the school. Here’s a case study of how Liberty University handled the tension last spring
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Liberty University junior Jack Panyard rejoiced on March 16 when newspaper adviser Deborah Huff told him he would be 2018-19 editor-in-chief of the weekly Liberty Champion—circulation 16,000.
For Panyard and the 15 other undergrad students on the college newspaper staff, the Champion was a beloved part of their daily lives. They hustled to the newspaper office between classes to write, edit, or just hang out. They spent weekends there. Panyard kept textbooks in the office and extra clothes in his desk in case he had to work through the night.
Despite some tension, the Champion staff had had a good year. Many of them studied together, watched movies together, and occasionally played the keyboard in copy editor Sarah Jackson’s house. They went out to eat at Shanghai Express, a Chinese restaurant Panyard described as “cheap and fatty,” and took trips together to tour Charlottesville, Roanoke, and Washington, D.C.
In the fall of 2017, assistant news editor Erin Covey told the group she had never been to a haunted house, so they went to Scaremare, Liberty’s evangelistic version. Just before Christmas, newspaper adviser Huff hosted a staff party. Early in 2018, Covey, editor-in-chief William Young, and news editor Panyard won first place for headline writing in the Virginia Press Association’s news and editorial contest. Young placed first in column writing.
The Champion office on the first floor of Green Hall was the staffers’ clubhouse. At first glance, the desks and gray carpet gave it a crisp, no-nonsense feel, but a whiteboard exhibited inside jokes, bulletin boards above the desks displayed pictures, and foam cups, open folders, and stray sheets of paper covered the desktops. One floor up sat the office of Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr.
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 October 2017, Liberty police escorted from campus Jonathan Martin, a “Red Letter” pastor, and threatened to arrest him if he returned. (Red Letter Christians are on the political left and focus on only the quoted words of Jesus. Martin had tweeted plans for a peaceful protest at Liberty.) Falwell said police removed Martin because Liberty does not allow uninvited protests on campus.
During the next few months, Champion editors and writers say, faculty members spiked other student articles. Through Liberty Communications Director Len Stevens, WORLD repeatedly requested interviews with Jerry Falwell Jr., faculty adviser Huff, and Bruce Kirk, dean of the School of Communication and Digital Content, but they all declined the opportunity.
Meanwhile, Liberty junior Jack Panyard was writing lots of bylined articles—but one he wrote did not have his name on it. Early in 2018 he interviewed the director and producer of a film, Commander, planned by Liberty’s Cinematic Arts program. Based on a 2017 book, the film was to tell the story of Mark Taylor, who spoke of his vision that Donald Trump would become president. Panyard’s piece indicated some uncertainty about Taylor’s descriptions of talking with God. When his article came back from vetting, those reservations were gone. Panyard took his name off the piece.
Nevertheless, Huff in March 2018 chose Panyard to be editor-in-chief, a position that brought with it not only authority but a $3,000 scholarship per semester. Huff chose Erin Covey to be news editor.
In April, Panyard wrote a story about Liberty’s policy toward unmarried women who lived in the university’s dorms and became pregnant. He interviewed the president of Lifeline (Liberty’s pro-life ministry), the executive director of the residence life office, and a student kicked out of the dorms. Liberty spiked the story.
Also in April came an announcement of a “Red Letter Revival” in Lynchburg that would include a time of prayer on Liberty’s campus. Leader Shane Claiborne invited Falwell to attend. In response, Liberty police sent Claiborne a letter stating he would receive a $2,500 fine and possible jail time if he stepped onto campus.
Two or three Liberty students planned to speak at the Revival, and others planned to attend, so Covey decided to cover the event for the Champion. On April 5, the day before the event, she interviewed Don Golden, executive director of Red Letter Christians, and told him she planned to attend. He added her name to the list of media attendees. Covey emailed Falwell with a request for comment. He emailed back the same afternoon: “Let’s not run any articles about the event.”
‘Your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is. … Don’t destroy the image of LU. Pretty simple. OK?’ —Bruce Kirk
Covey told Golden to take her off the media list because Liberty’s administration would prefer that the Champion not cover the event. It’s not clear how numerous journalists learned about the change, but soon The New York Times, Religion News Service, and NPR reporters were calling Covey. RNS quoted her as saying, “The level of oversight we have does make it difficult to pursue the accurate journalism that we’re taught in classes.”
On April 13, Bruce Kirk emailed Champion staff members to say he would interview them for next year’s positions. This was a first for the Champion. In the past, Huff chose staff members and had a casual conversation with them to confirm they were right for the job. Three days later Panyard walked alone to a conference room where Kirk waited to interview him for the position of editor-in-chief. Kirk shook Panyard’s hand and thumbed through his notes to remember his name.
Panyard said Kirk asked him how he would prevent another situation like Covey’s Red Letter Revival story. Panyard said the staff and the administration should have an open discussion about why to exclude a piece. Panyard left the meeting worried that he would lose the editor-in-chief’s job. He decided to record all future meetings with Kirk.
Two days later, April 18, Falwell addressed the current and incoming Champion staff in a hastily arranged conference call. A dozen students pulled their rolling desk chairs around the news editor’s desk to wait for the phone to ring. Staffers prayed that God would help them be respectful and everything would be resolved soon. Kirk and Huff were also in the room.
Falwell then called and told them the newspaper had been “established to champion the interests of the university, disseminate information about happenings on Liberty’s campus, as well as the positive impacts of Liberty in the community and beyond. And as such, the publisher of the publication, which is the university, is responsible for content decisions, to find stories to be covered by Champion personnel and makes all of the calls on the articles, photographs and other content. … We’re going to have to be stricter in the future if these protocols aren’t followed.”
He asked if there were any questions. The students were silent. Huff said, “I’m looking around the room. … I don’t see anybody with a hand up.” After Falwell hung up, Kirk said, “If you don’t know, I’m Dean Kirk. … In the real world, which this isn’t, let’s just be honest, right? … You will be beholden to an organization, to a company. … That is just part of life. And it’s part of life for all of us by the way. Put journalism aside for a second. Do I get to do everything that I want to do or does Jerry dictate what I get to do? … Somebody else decides what you do and what you don’t say or do.”
Later, Kirk spoke of the story about Red Letter Christians: “I think everybody here is intelligent enough to understand that that story has got some real negative overtones, undertones, potentials. … You have to consider that as a starting point and say, ‘OK, what’s the benefit for this? What’s going to happen that is positive for Liberty?’”
Covey asked how what happened at an educational institution might be different from what happened at a business. Kirk replied, “It’s not really that different. Frankly, I said it’s a family business, it is. I mean, Jerry Falwell and his dad Jerry before him and that’s how this university was founded, right? It wasn’t founded by somebody else. It was founded by the Falwells.” Staff members exchanged glances as he spoke, and some looked at the floor to avoid eye contact.
Kirk concluded, “I think it’s great that Jerry was willing to take even a few minutes to do this. He’s incredibly busy. It’s not every university paper that even gets to hear from their president, let alone ask a question if you wanted to. You were probably afraid to, and I get it. You don’t want him to label you as the one like, ‘Who asked that question? Who was that?’ You don’t want to be that person, I get that.” He asked the students to remember, “It’s their paper. They can do what they want. … If things aren’t followed, they’ll get stricter.”
Another week passed. During the Champion staff meeting on April 25, Panyard and Covey acted in their upcoming roles as editor-in-chief and news editor, leading the discussion on stories and planning the semester’s last two issues. But Kirk called Panyard to another meeting on April 27 and told him the Liberty administration had decided on “a serious restructuring of the Champion. … We’re doing away with the editor-in-chief position. … Bottom line is your services won’t be needed.”
Panyard asked, “So I’m fired?” Kirk replied, “Fired is not the right word. We’re not firing anybody, we’re just not putting you in that position.” Panyard asked if he would be part of the Champion at all. Kirk said no. Panyard said, “I’ve just worked very hard on this paper.” Kirk said, “Companies reorganize all the time.” Liberty’s reorganization: The Champion would now have a managing editor instead of an editor-in-chief.
Panyard had lost his position and its $3,000-per-semester scholarship. Erin Covey was next: Kirk told her about the reorganization, with the Champion now having an assistant content editor instead of a news editor. Neither Covey nor Panyard would be allowed to work even the last two weeks of the semester. When he returned to the Champion office a few hours later to collect his belongings, his key card had already been deactivated.
The firings had repercussions for the whole organization. Four staff members resigned from the Champion, two right before they graduated. Kirk offered the open positions to two students: One declined and one accepted.
Kirk told the new staffers, “Your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is. … Don’t destroy the image of LU. Pretty simple. OK? Well you might say, ‘Well, that’s not my job, my job is to do journalism. My job is to be First Amendment. My job is to go out and dig and investigate, and I should do anything I want to do because I’m a journalist.’ So let’s get that notion out of your head. OK?”
He added, “It’s their newspaper. They can stop this newspaper today if they wanted to. And just so you know, they can do it. Too much trouble, too many problems, we’re getting ourselves in hot water, you guys are doing stories we can’t defend. We’re gonna stop.”
Now, edited stories before publication must go through a two- or three-stage approval process: first to the faculty adviser, then to a panel of faculty members, and after that possibly to Falwell himself for approval before publishing. It’s not clear how long that three-stage process of approval will take, nor whether students will be able to take any initiative.
Plus, students on the newspaper staff who receive scholarships must now sign a nondisclosure agreement that says those scholarships are “conditioned on my full and continuous compliance with all the following Newspaper Rules throughout the fall and spring semesters of the 2018-2019 academic year.” Among those rules: Champion staffers cannot be sources for or subjects of stories by outside journalists without the Liberty administration’s “special permission” and submission to its “conditions.” They cannot comment on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media “about any publication of the Liberty Champion or its affiliated communication services.”
During the summer now concluding Jack Panyard worked as a barista and a waiter, and as an intern with an entertainment website. He has taken out loans for the next school year. In the fall, he anticipates working as a research assistant in the communications office for 20 hours a week to pay for his last year of school.
Update from WORLD Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky (8/17/18): I had a cordial conversation this afternoon with Scott Lamb, Liberty University’s Vice President of Special Literary Projects, who is part of Liberty’s Office of the President. Referring to what WORLD quoted from Bruce Kirk, Dean of the School of Communication and Visual Content, Lamb said, “Mr. Kirk spoke for himself. He was not speaking on behalf of the university or as a spokesman for the university.” Lamb said Kirk was “speaking his own thoughts, giving his own understanding of what he was communicating.”
—This story has been updated to correct the description of Jordan Jarrett’s role at the Liberty Champion in 2016, and to correct the description of how outside journalists learned the Champion would not cover the Red Letter Revival.
Against journalistic slavery
A British tradition I very much enjoy from afar is coming up on Sept. 8. That’s the last night of a concert series called The Proms (for musical promenades) that dates from 1895. Near the end, audiences in the London concert hall or watching on large screens in major parks throughout the realm stand and sing “Rule Britannia”—with its last line, “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
That could be the theme of good journalism as well. Under financial pressure, most networks and major newspapers spin for their anti-Trump base and Fox News plays to its pro-Trump base. Given the way many reporters today are propagandists, it’s hard to speak of journalism and truth-telling in the same breath—but we need to recapture the idea of Biblical objectivity that once drove editors and writers.
One reason I’ve enjoyed so much my 26 years of editing WORLD is that I’ve never, never, never felt like a slave. WORLD has had four publishers during that period, but none has ever told me we couldn’t cover a news event or print a particular story. No board member or advertiser has killed a story. To the consternation of some, we’re not a conservative movement magazine or an evangelical public relations organ.
Through our World Journalism Institute, we try to instill in both college students and mid-career professionals a sense of Bible-based journalistic independence. The Brits on Sept. 8 will sing, “The nations, not so blest as thee, / Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall; / While thou shalt flourish great and free.” WORLD is not so great but we are free, and we see no reason why Christian college students should be crushingly told that the search for journalistic blessings is an impossible dream.
Independent reporters, of course, are irritants, and young ones may make more mistakes than older ones would. I was a Christian college provost/academic vice president for four years, put up with some negative stories in the college newspaper, and sometimes told the young journalists I thought they were wrong—but never said they couldn’t write a story, and never purged the editorial staff. The purpose of an educational institution is education, and its leaders need to decide whether they are teaching students to be slaves, or free men and women.
The Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that not everything that’s lawful is profitable. Christian colleges have legal rights: They own the buildings, equipment, and other things necessary to produce school newspapers. But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. The key question: Is this good for growing us in Christ?
Checks and balances are good: College newspaper advisers are a check on student liberty, but they should advise, not command. Journalists can be a check on government, including college government, but they should meld temerity with humility. Executives should administer and lead, but not execute those who disagree. —Marvin Olasky
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