On March 29th, the New York Times published an article with the full title: "Liberty University Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too: The decision by the school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., to partly reopen his evangelical university enraged residents of Lynchburg, Va. Then students started getting sick."
The article strongly suggested that Falwell had put students at risk and that a dozen were likely to have contracted the disease. It openly claimed that they had COVID-like symptoms, without specifying what those were (as opposed to general cold or flu symptoms). It claimed that one of the students had tested positive and it quoted a Dr. Eppes in ways that suggested that the University had lost control of the situation. The article also said that Falwell 'reopened the university,' which, while having an element of truth, really grossly exaggerated the situation.
The article was widely circulated, and in response Falwell was roundly criticized by many, me included, on social media. It seemed to many of us as though a moral calculus had gone wrong, that politics had been put ahead of the sanctity of human life. And all of that would be true, if the story itself were actually true. But it was not.
I didn't publish any articles on the subject. It's not my 'beat', but I did post some outrage on Facebook. But then something happened. A friend who actually works there, at the Fakirk Center, reached out to me personally. He didn't Twitter bomb me, Facebook flame me, or denounce me. He simply privately reached out and reasoned with me. We engaged on the issue. He shared facts. I asked him to back up those facts. He did.
While that was going on, friends who had children at Liberty also posted comments, telling me that the article conflicted with their own direct experience. That, instead of a broad reopening, as the article had suggested, a small, targeted reopening focused on foreign students who had no place else to go was what they observed. More than one told me that Liberty was largely deserted, 'like a ghost town'. As data actually was released from Liberty, it turns out that less than 1,500 out of 15,000 students were left on campus -- and again, mostly foreign students.
Furthermore, Dr. Eppes came forward to deny the accuracy of the quote attributed to him.
And then we waited to see the ominous warnings about a COVID breakout come to fruition. They did not. It's not as though the press didn't like the story. It's not as though they would not have loved to hang Mr. Falwell from spires, and yet, with a hostile national press, none could confirm even a single case of the disease. The University said there were no confirmed positive cases, and no one in the world of MSNBCNNBC and WashPostTimes could come up with a single confirmed infection contracted on campus from this reopening. Some outbreak. This came nowhere near to the promising incipient participle in the sub-head about how students 'started getting sick.' Really? Before this, no students had any respiratory ailments? No colds or flus until Falwell 'reopened'? So 11 students out of 1,500 had respiratory symptoms which the article claimed 'were suggestive of COVID'. Suggestive how? Were the symptoms known to be idiosyncratic to this disease reported: trouble breathing, loss of sense of smell, dry cough? We're not told.
The folks at Liberty released this data, comparing the university to others in the state that had not undergone the same journalistic proctological treatment
I couldn't put it better than the sober-minded, old-school Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn did in his article "The Education of Jerry Falwell Jr.; Attacked for keeping Liberty University open, he now seems to have made a good call."
McGurn is an independent voice, one I respect a great deal and who has not bowed any knees that I can see to subvert journalistic integrity for political or group loyalty.
"No Liberty student living on campus tested positive, and no staffer stationed on campus tested positive. But press accounts left a different impression….
"Mr. Falwell violated no laws or public-health directives. Liberty followed all rules and took additional steps, including constant cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, removing two of every three computers from the lab to ensure social distancing, and quarantining those suspected of carrying the virus in a former hotel 3 miles from campus. Two surprise visits from state health inspectors found no violations."
So why did I believe the story? The New York Times was once a real newspaper, indeed, the paper of record. Yes, it had its biases, but quotes and specific numbers… that's fact-based journalism, right? I also didn't like some of Mr. Falwell's tough talk about the shut down. But what I like is beside the point. The story was factually wrong. Period.
Mr. Falwell would do well to peruse the book of Proverbs, a Biblical manual for leaders when it comes to the matter of careful vs. combative speech. I hope he does. But whether he does or not, he deserves the same benefit of the doubt when it comes to factual accusations as anyone else.
Speaking of consulting the book of Proverbs, maybe I should have done so as well before buying into the New York Times calumny:
He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him." (Prov. 18:13 KJV)