Telling The Story Of Jerry Falwell

Journalists covering the deaths of controversial figures like Jerry Falwell must deal with two sometimes contradictory impulses: The noble impulse not to speak ill of the dead, and the journalistic impulse to tell the full story.

Falwell was an important figure – though perhaps not as important as members of the media thought. He was both passionately admired and passionately reviled. Late in life he made a number of ludicrous comments, chief among them his claim that "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America" were in part responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (He later apologized.)

Falwell also said, as Timothy Noah notes, that "AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals." He claimed that feminists "just need a man in the house." He argued that evangelical environmental activism is the work of Satan. And let's not even get into the whole Tinky Winky thing.

The "Evening News" coverage of Falwell's passing included two packages, one on his life and the other tied to last night's Republican presidential debate. The packages were evenhanded and addressed both Falwell's successes and the comments that made him so controvertial. Katie Couric also interviewed Reverend Robert Schuller and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, both of whom heaped praise on Falwell. At the end of the show, she spoke to CBS News' Jeff Greenfield and Douglas Brinkley. The latter, especially, did not cast Falwell in a positive light.

Here's part of their exchange, from the Nexis transcript:

COURIC: And, Doug, he did blame the "pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays" and others for helping to make the September 11th attacks happen. How did that affect his standing, in your view?

BRINKLEY: 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. The feminists never liked him in the United States. He was always warring with the women's movement. In many ways he's a backlash figure. He was opposed to the great society and opposed to some of the progressive liberal high watermarks of the 1960s, and certainly he wanted--his returning to family values was returning to women being in the kitchen, in many ways.

I think that's a pretty fair characterization – at least as fair as Schuller's claim earlier in the show that Falwell was "prepared to pay the price with [his] life if [he] needed to" for his beliefs. Ultimately, portraying the whole individual -- warts and all -- has to be the bottom line for journalists when it comes to summing up the life of a public figure. The "Evening News" was right to leave the hagiographies to the eulogists.