Liberty University Cracks Down on Its Student Newspaper

Liberty University Cracks Down on Its Student Newspaper August 21, 2018

In a recent WORLD Magazine article, Charissa Crotts, Elizabeth Rieth, and Isaiah Johnson shed light on a struggle taking place at Liberty University over control of the Liberty Champion, the school’s student newspaper. The students want independence, and freedom to criticize President Trump, or the university’s hypocritical policy on unwed pregnant students, and the administration wants none of it. The administration wants complete administrative review.

And it seems they’re getting it.

Crotts, Rieth, and Johnson’s article is full of fascinating stories, as told by students formerly employed by the student paper, peppered with quotations from the administration that the students obtained after they began, out of increasing concern, recording their conversations with staff advisors, deans, and Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. himself.

Here is an excerpt by way of example:

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.

Mark Taylor, by the way, is a firefighter who claimed in April 2016 that God told him in 2011 that Donald Trump would become president and save the world. No really. After going public only when Trump had the primaries in the bag, Taylor wrote out the entire message he says God gave him. It’s paragraphs and paragraphs long. He then wrote a book about it.

Liberty University’s Cinematic Arts program is turning Taylor’s book into a grand patriotic movie. Many Liberty students consider Taylor’s comments to be heretical. And frankly, Liberty’s involvement is just embarrassing for them. If they want to be taken seriously as an academically qualified Christian college—say, on the level of a Wheaton or a Grove City College—they need to not do things like this. And yet here we are.

All this is to say that Panyard’s qualifications—his uncertainty over whether Taylor actually heard from God—were nothing but good journalism, and not out of step with a Christian worldview at that. There’s reams and reams of room within evangelical Christianity, from Jerry Falwell Jr., who apparently bought Taylor’s vision hook line and sinker, to Warren Throckmorton, who teaches at Grove City and is quick to call out nonsense when he sees it. Panyard was not out of step.

Except, of course, that Falwell appears to be intent on running Liberty like his own private playground, and Panyard was a student there. Falwell believes that he—and not the students or independent advisors—gets to determine what is published in the student newspaper and what is not. And that is exactly what he said when he called the student reporters in for a drubbing.

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.”

And it wasn’t just Falwell, either:

After Falwell hung up, [Liberty University Dean of Communications and Digital Content Bruce] 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.”

Kirk called Panyard to his office and fired him—except, of course, that he refused to call it a firing. They had, Kirk said, simply eliminated his position. There would be no more editor-in-chief.

Some days later, Kirk gave this message to the remaining staff at the Liberty Champion, once the purges of troublesome staff—Panyard among them—were complete:

“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?”

Here’s the thing—Liberty’s student newspaper staffers weren’t employees. This wasn’t an alumni newsletter written and published by paid staff (and perhaps paid student workers) working in the alumni department. Working at the student newspaper is more like an internship, where you have the opportunity to gain skills and experience. This only works if you’re actually allowed to be what you’re supposed to be gaining practice at being—a reporter.

The Liberty University administration is being incredibly disingenuous. Either this is a student paper, where you offer a certain amount of leeway and freedom to pursue leads and publish stories, or it’s not. And if it’s not, it should not be called a student newspaper, and the students who work there need to be paid, their positions acknowledged for what they are—promoters. Not reporters.

Oh and guess what? From now on, students who work at the Liberty Champion will have to sign an agreement stating that they will not talk to the press. This is, presumably, because that is just what Panyard did, telling his story and sharing his audio with WORLD Magazine.

It’s unsurprising to me that WORLD Magazine covered this story. They run the World Journalism Institute, training college journalism students and young journalists in providing solid reporting from a Christian worldview (at least, that is how their advertising reads). WORLD Magazine has a very big paddle in the pond that is Christian journalism.

Marvin Olasky, the editor-in-chief of WORLD Magazine, attached his own scathing editorial to Crotts, Rieth, and Johnson’s article, defending journalistic freedom. He titled his piece “Against Journalistic Slavery,” and ripped into Falwell and his crack down on the Champion.

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.

I’m not certain how far Olasky is willing to these arguments. Has he written against Trump’s attacks on the freedom of the press? Given that he too believes that the mainstream media is biased, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Olasky is a far-right conservative, and I disagree with nearly everything he writes. Why this piece, then? It may be that that there was already no love lost between WORLD Magazine and Liberty University—I don’t know one way or another. It may simply be that the actions of Liberty’s administration against what Olasky saw as reasonable reporting offended him deeply, given his interest in promoting independent Christian reporting.

Either way, Olasky didn’t hold punches in condemning Falwell’s actions, or those of the Liberty University administration. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Panyard finds himself with a scholarship to a World Journalism Institute course, and a meeting with Olasky himself.

At the end of Crotts, Rieth, and Johnson’s article is this update by Olasky, offering Liberty University’s response to the coverage:

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.”

I suppose they have to throw someone under the bus, and Kirk got the short straw. It’s just that Kirk didn’t actually say anything different from what Falwell had already said. Besides that, Kirk was acting in his official position as dean of Communications and Digital Content when he made his quoted comments, both after Falwell’s conference call and when firing Panyard.

The real question is whether Liberty University going to remind their policy changes vis a vis the running of the student paper—and the answer so far appears to be no.

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