Media Dance on Falwell's Grave

Mainstream media coverage of Jerry Falwell's May 15 death has been a disgrace to journalism.

Glossing over Rev. Falwell's lengthy record of ministry, and ignoring his unbesmirched reputation for integrity – and the feelings of his bereaved family -- the media focused almost exclusively on his political activism, treating him as a political enemy to be ridiculed one last time.

While NBC and The New York Times emphasized the important role Falwell played in American politics, ABC anchor Charlie Gibson tried to downplay Falwell's significance by refusing to lead his broadcast with the story.  CNN's Anderson Cooper and Candy Crowley featured guests who made acidly critical remarks about Falwell, twice saying he should go to hell.  CBS Evening News devoted over 12 minutes of its May 15 broadcast to Falwell's death, focusing on a few controversial statements in what amounted to a deliberate smear of Falwell's character.

CBS reporter Richard Schlessinger stated, “Falwell started making embarrassing missteps, denouncing a popular cartoon character as a gay role model, telling an evangelical group that the Antichrist was a male Jew who was probably already alive, and this, perhaps blaming the 9/11 attacks on groups he opposed.”

Schlessinger suggested Falwell was motivated by money, saying the Moral Majority, “founded in 1979… promptly started raising hackles on the left and millions on the right.”  Later, Schlessinger pointed out that “by the time Falwell left the Moral Majority in 1987, the organization had enlisted six and a half million members and raised about $69 million.”

CBS anchor Katie Couric described Falwell as, “one of the most influential figures in America” in the beginning of the broadcast, but turned to his controversial 9/11 remarks in a question to CBS News Analyst Douglas Brinkley.  Brinkley responded, “Well, many people started writing him off as a joke.  He was a vibrant political force in the 1980s, but, by 2001, Falwell was kind of comedy fodder for people….his returning to family values was returning to women in the kitchen, in many ways.”

NBC Nightly News devoted the first five minutes of its broadcast to Falwell.  NBC National Correspondent Bob Faw touched on two controversial incidents in Falwell's past, saying “Falwell was ridiculed when he complained that one of PBS Teletubbies was gay.  And he came under scathing criticism in 2001 when he said that gays, lesbians and feminists were partly to blame for the terrorist attacks.” 

However, NBC's Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert acknowledged the important role Falwell played in American politics.  He said “even in the end, stopping to see Jerry Falwell was a necessary step on the road to the Republican nomination.”  Russert also acknowledged how Falwell was able to “suggest that religious people, whether they be Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, could come together on conservative issues and have real political influence.”

ABC News anchor Charlie Gibson admitted to Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz that he refused to lead his show with Falwell's death.  “It lends importance to a figure whose legacy contained a lot of positives and a lot of negatives…It venerates the subject to an extent that I didn't think belonged there. He was a controversial figure.” 

CNN's Candy Crowley also raised Falwell's Teletubbies and 9/11 remarks, and stunningly, on the day of his death, played this statement by former president Jimmy Carter: “Well, in a very Christian way, as far as I'm concerned, he can go to hell.”

CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 devoted an hour to Falwell.  Anchor Anderson Cooper hosted, in remarkably bad taste, what amounted to a debate about Falwell: “Whether you mourn Jerry Falwell's passing or not – and you will hear from both sides tonight – it's fair to say the man had a major impact.”

On Cooper's show, CNN correspondent Tom Foreman also played the Jimmy Carter clip saying Falwell, “can go to hell.”  Guest Christopher Hitchens, an atheist and contributing editor to Vanity Fair, said “I think it's a pity there isn't a hell for him to go to.”  Hitchens went on to describe Falwell as an “ugly little charlatan,” and “a conscious charlatan and bully and fraud.”

Cooper gave two homosexual activists opportunity to savage Falwell's memory.  Neal Giuliano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, suggested Falwell was “out of touch with regard to America.”  Soulforce head Rev. Mel White described Falwell as “sincere” and “a good pastor, a good provost, a good family man,” but also said “he showed all the signs of hatred, and created a lot of hatred against us by his rhetoric.”

At least Cooper allowed the Rev. Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, to defend Falwell's memory: “He loved to play -- oh, yes. He loved to play jokes on the students, and he was just a lot of fun to be with.  You know, I've been watching, Anderson, the program, and there's people that want to paint Jerry as this mean-hearted, evil person. Jerry was -- listen, Jerry was a wonderful man, a good man. He was a pastor who loved people, and he loved sinners.”

The New York Times placed the news of Falwell's death on the front page, below the fold.  The 2,841-word article did not dwell on his contentious statements, instead emphasizing his role in creating “the religious right as a political force.” 

Mentions of Teletubbies and 9/11 did not appear until the ninth paragraph. The Times correctly attributed the Teletubbies controversy to an article that appeared in Falwell's National Liberty Journal, and also acknowledged that Falwell apologized for his 9/11 comment.

Times reporter Peter Applebome said Falwell “at his core, remained through his career what he was at the beginning: a preacher and moralist, a believer in the Bible's literal truth, with convictions about religious and social issues rooted in his reading of scripture.” 

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research CenterBrian Fitzpatrick is senior editor at CMI.