Bob Knight, Director of the Culture and Media Institute offers these thoughts on the media's treatment of the death of Rev. Jerry Falwell.
In many of his talks to Liberty University students, the Rev. Jerry Falwell emphasized the importance of “finishing well.”
On Tuesday, May 15, he was at the top of his game when he unexpectedly died in the college office where he was planning more expansions of the fast-growing university that he founded in 1971.
The Rev. Falwell did a lot of things well, ticking off liberals right up to the end. How else would he have garnered the kind of tribute from a major newspaper’s religion writer that was headlined, “Sigh of relief over Falwell death.”
To make sure no one mistook her, Chicago Sun-Times Religion Writer Cathleen Falsani’s May 18 column explains her reaction to the news about Dr. Falwell on May 15.
“…My very first thought upon hearing of the Rev. Falwell’s passing was: Good. And I didn’t mean ‘good’ in a oh-good-he’s-gone-to-be-home-with-the-Lord kind of way. I mean ‘good’ as in ‘Ding-dong, the witch is dead.’”
Falsani, who claims to be a Christian, learned of this apparent good news in the airport departure lounge in Key West, a place where Jerry is not held in great esteem.
She went on to compare the good reverend to the foul-mouthed TV mobster Tony Soprano, and accused Falwell of saying “insensitive, mean-spirited, sometimes downright hateful things …in the name of Christ.” She did do a bit of backing up, saying that maybe, in his own way, God used Jerry so that “lives were changed for the better by his ministry, his college, and the flip side of the endeavors he made in Jesus’ name.”
Meanwhile, she informed readers of her own apparent spiritual superiority, noting that “not all of us are that self-righteous, judgmental and holier than thou.”
I guess that openly enjoying the death of a fellow Christian and utterly distorting his Christian message into a caricature of hate is the mark of the nonjudgmental. I think it’s somewhere in the Sermon on the Mount.
Of course, Falsani is not the only journalist to use Rev. Falwell’s death as one more opportunity to cast fiery darts at him.
Virtually every major news outlet made sure that Falwell’s controversial comment following 9/11 and his notorious “outing” of the “gay Teletubby” Tinky Winky got ink and airtime.
The New York Times noted that it was an article in the National Liberty Journal, which Falwell published, that touched off the Teletubbies ruckus. But the article failed to mention that the Liberty Journal piece quoted The Washington Post’s outing of Tinky Winky, and that the gay press and several other mainstream outlets had cheered openly for a year that the boy in the purple suit, carrying a purse and bearing the homosexual symbol, an upside down triangle, on his head, was clearly the first openly “gay” character in a children’s program.
I recall faxing The Washington Post article to the National Liberty Journal back in February 1999. I had also faxed an article from a gay newspaper in which one of Teletubbies’ creators boasted openly that Tinky Winky’s character, which combines a deep daddy’s voice and mommy’s handbag, was a deliberate attempt to make children think differently about gender. The Liberty Journal editors decided to stick with the Washington Post as the main source, which seems like a wise thing to do. But in the end, it didn’t matter.
In the 10 years since, the press magnified and sustained the myth that Jerry Falwell “outed” Tinky Winky with no apparent evidence. He just did it for the heck of it, to be mean to gays. As smears go, it made him easy to ridicule. Try as they might, that was the best they could do, since they unearthed no hint of scandal involving his integrity. In March 1999, Liberty Journal Senior Editor J. M. Smith pointed out the media’s distortions, but the myth continued to gain strength. Dr. Falwell himself took it in stride, even placing a stuffed Tinky Winky on top of his computer as a joke. Given his own generous spirit and lack of vitriol, he didn’t seem to understand the damage that was done to his reputation.
Over the years, I’ve tried to set some of my media friends straight about the inception of the myth, but the response has been pretty much, “That’s our story, and we’re sticking with it.” And why not? It’s a very useful device. It’s so good that even many conservative commentators have bought into it, pointing it out from time to time in order to polish their own images as more reasonable people than someone like Jerry Falwell.
There’s a word for folks like that, but you wouldn’t hear the Rev. Falwell using it. It’s more along the lines of something Tony Soprano might say.
Or a religion writer from the Chicago Sun-Times.
Robert Knight is director of the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.