Are college newspapers in imminent danger?

Photo by Casey Gomez

It is no exaggeration to claim that there is a full-fledged war on journalism. The current president rallies and uses his power to threaten media organizations that he feels do not massage his ego enough, calling them “fake news” while propaganda machines masquerading as reputable organizations publish truly “fake news”, deliberately false stories designed to inflame and divide. Most recently, this war has found its way into the halls of college campuses across the nation, going after journalism at its core.

The recent event I refer to is a report from World Magazine, describing how the leadership at Liberty University, a private Christian college in Virginia, lobotomized the student newspaper after it published articles that went against the personal values of the president of LU, Jerry Falwell (Falwell is a friend and ally of U.S. president Donald Trump). Bruce Kirk, dean of the School and Communication and Digital Content, interfered with the newspaper’s operations by bluntly telling the newspaper staff that they should avoid running articles that might portray LU in a negative light, and eventually restructured the newspaper so that student staff would have to run all articles by a panel of staff members and possibly the university president himself. Furthermore, any students on staff were required to sign non-disclosure agreements about communicating the goings-on at the paper to other journalists or on social media.

The most damning quote of all from the report was from Kirk’s mouth, in addressing the students about their role at the paper: “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.”

That the dean of the communications school at LU evidently believes that student journalists are in some way indebted to LU, or even instruments to build up its reputation, displays a profound lack of knowledge of the purpose of journalism. LU claims to run a student paper, but in its current iteration, it may as well be printing advertising pamphlets. George Orwell famously said, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

This is yet another backhanded attempt to deprive journalism of a platform and neuter information — but unlike previous attacks on journalism, this incident occurred at an institute claiming to teach aspiring journalists, a place where journalists are developed. If Kirk genuinely believes that the role of a journalist is simply to publish information favorable to whoever is in power, he is not at all fit to serve as dean of a communications school.

But Kirk is not the root of this problem — it is Falwell, who is resulting to the same kinds of attacks on journalism and truth as his friend, Trump. Falwell appears as cowardly and thin-skinned as his governmental counterpart in that he has actively attempted to censor public knowledge of events or viewpoints that exist in opposition to his own personal beliefs to whatever degree that he can. Falwell is perfectly willing to trample over the education of the students who he should be serving to protect his own sniveling sensitivity, journalistic integrity be damned.

LU’s journalists and audience deserve better than spineless leadership, too afraid of dissenting opinion to even allow fair coverage of opposing viewpoints. It is truly disgusting to watch this happen to fellow student journalists and sickening to watch students taught that this what being a newspaper is truly like, especially given the current landscape of journalism and news coverage in the United States. Falwell, let them practice journalism, not public relations.