The media play an important role in democratic societies. We depend on them to provide information that we could not gather on our own. They have immense power to help set agendas, determine the salience of issues, and form and reinforce our opinions. Baptists used to have a first-rate press office. But, as in so many other areas, after the Fundamentalist Takeover, the SBC's effort in this critical area deteriorated significantly.
Everyone should buy the Kindle edition of The Fundamentalist Takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention for 99 cents. The chapter on the Baptist Press is omitted from the new version, so I'll summarize the story of how Baptist Press was silenced by the fundamentalists. This is a story that must be told, repeated, and never forgotten. The chapter is quoted in its entirety at the conclusion of this post.
Baptist Press was a highly competent, professional, and cost-effective news organization. It provided reporting and photography to dozens of Baptist newspapers and received unanimous praise from Baptist journalism professors, other denominational media officials, and Baptist state newspapers. One person who did not appreciate Baptist Press, however, was Judge Paul Pressler. Pressler, as you know, was one of the two main co-conspirators (along with Rev. Paige Patterson) of the Fundamentalist Takeover. (You might have seen Pressler's name in the media lately because he hosted the meeting of conservative Christian leaders two weeks ago that endorsed Rick Santorum for the GOP presidential nomination.)
Pressler personally intervened and launched a crusade against Baptist Press. Its crime? Reporting honestly on the fundamentalists' takeover effort in the 1980s. Eventually, the SBC fired two senior editors in a closed-door Executive Committee meeting. In 1994, SBC President Ed Young (father of Ed Young, Jr. of fundamentalist sex manual fame) called for an end to investigative reporting by Christian editors and reporters.
Thus, in addition to a spate of independent Baptist papers run by Rev. Jerry Falwell and others, the official SBC communications channels became (and remain) committed to the fundamentalists' agenda. There is no free press in the Southern Baptist Convention. There is no free press in the BGCO. And, as we will see in our next post, there is no free press at OBU. We've said it before, but we must say it again in regard to journalism: Fundamentalist will not tolerate anything they cannot control.
Fortunately, Associated Baptist Press fills a much-needed void. We'll tell the ABP story another day.
For now, read the startling account of how fundamentalist leaders destroyed the Baptist Press:
The right of every Baptist to know is based on the equality of believers in Christ Jesus and upon the democratic nature of our church and denominational life. Every believer has a right to serve his or her God, his or her church, and his or her denomination intelligently. This can be done only as the right to know is respected. -- W.G. Stracener, editor of the Florida Baptist Witness from 1959-70
Baptist Press, the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention, provides daily releases, news features, and photographs to 37 Baptist papers, to other religious journals, and to the secular press. The press service is an arm fo the SBC Executive Committee.
A long-term participant in and observer of Baptist life has wisely stated, "The largest, most productive, and most cost-efficient communications effort of each and all the Baptist state conventions is the 37 state Baptist newspapers."
Almost without exception, Baptist Press consistently received the highest commendation from its many and varied constituencies. These included college and university journalism professors, religion writers and reporters from the secular media, public relations professionals, and denominational leaders.
Executive Committee trustee Paul Pressler was a notable exception to this generally positive evaluation. This powerful leader of the teakeover effort had been an intense critic of Baptist Press for many years. He was not pleased with former Baptist Press director W.C. Fields; nor was he pleased with Alvin C. "Al" Shackleford, the committed, capable, and experienced director of Baptist Press who took office in March 1987.
Periodically, Pressler expressed his negative evaluation of Baptist Press's work by letter to the staff or to other persons who might have influence with the staff. Often, he insisted that "public apology" be made to him for Baptist Press statements concerning himself or the takeover effort he was leading.
In an encounter with Shackleford during the May 1987 Conference on Biblical Inerrancy at Ridgecrest, North Carolina, Pressler angrily waved a Baptist Press news release at Shackleford's face that reported, in a thoroughly fair and professional way, what had been said at one of the sessions. As the two men stood in the Ridgecrest cafeteria line, Pressler demanded, "What are you going to do about this? I want to know what you're going to do about this."
In its February 1988 session, the SBC Executive Committee received the report and recommendations of a special committee that had been authorized at the 1987 SBC in St. Louis to evaluate Baptist Press. The Executive Committee took action "generally affirming" Baptist Press. Also during the February meeting, the Southern Baptist Press association, composed primarily of Baptist state paper editors, commended Baptist Press for "a fair, accurate, and comprehensive job of reporting events in Southern Baptist life."
Despite these affirmations, Pressler continued his determined effort to restrict the freedom of Baptist Press during a meeting of the Executive Committee during the June 1988 SBC. He chose that time because he knew that trustees elected during the SBC would be fundamentalists and would probably suport his effort. However, his motion to add restrictive guidelines to govern Baptist Press failed -- but only by a vote of 31-29.
Following those eventas at the 1988 SBC in San Antonio, Ed Briggs, president of the Religious Newswriters Association and religion editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, sent a strong letter to the chairman of the SBC Executive Committee. The members fo the Religious Newswriters Association cover religion for newpapers, news magazines, and wire services in the United States and Canada.
In his letter, subsequently published, Briggs expressed the praise of American newswriters in lavish terms: "Baptist Press enjoys high credibility, if not the highest, when compared to news operations of other American denominations."
Briggs also expressed the newswriters' uneasiness about the restrictive guidelines Pressler proposed in San Antonio. "We are concerned any time efforts are made to stifle freedom of expression and place restrictions and limitations on news organizations." The letter went on to invoke the example of "Baptist saints who faced jail rather than bow down to dictated religion."
An emasculated Baptist Press of managed and manipulated news would be an affront to all persons who believe in the competence fo the individual to deal directly with God, the priesthood of every believer, religious liberty, and local church autonomy. An emasculated Baptist Press would also mean that Southern Baptists would be far less likely to learn anything about their denomination's affairs -- except the things the controlling group wanted them to know.
Pressler and other fundamentalists continued to claim Baptist Press wrote stories which "persecuted" fundamentalists. Baptist Press reporters are hired by and can be fired by the persons and agencies about which they write. Pressure is, therefore, on reporters to write stories with a certain "spin" to reflect well on supervisors and their agencies. Only the most courageous reporters write the truth, good or bad, and they quickly become targets.
Finally, in June 1990, the administrative committee of the SBC Executive Council directed Executive Committee President Harold Bennett to ask for the resignations of Al Shackleford, 58, and Dan Martin, 52. They refused to resign and wrote a Baptist Press story on the request.
In response, the outraged officers of the SBC Executive Committee demanded a called meeting on July 17, 1990. The meeting cost a reported $45,500, including $500 for five armed guards from the Nashville Metro Police Department, who guarded the doors to the meeting room. The two embattled men were again asked to resign, and again they refused. As 200 concerned editors, agency personnel, pastors, lay persons, and others sang hymns outside the closed doors of the conference room, Shackleford and Martin were fired "effective immediately."
Of the firing, Don McGregor, editor of the Mississippi Baptist Record, wrote, "Today, we have seen the final destruction of freedom of the press among Southern Baptists... They were fired because the majority of SBC executive committee does not want a free-flowing, objective and accurate news service."
Immediately after the firing was announced, a Nashville attorney, who said he was speaking on behalf of "concerned editors, pastors, and laypersons," announced the formation of a new press service, to be called the Associated Baptist Press (ABP).
Dan Martin was named interim director with a launch date of September 1990. Don McGregor, who hard retired as editor of the Baptist Record, was named executive editor of ABP in March 1991. Greg Warner, associate editor of The Florida Baptist Witness, was named editor of ABP effective May 1, 1991. After several years as a freelance writer and pastor of a North Carolina church, Martin was named executive-director of Texans Who Care, a statewide anti-gambling coalition, in December 1992.
Ed Young, SBC president, in an address to the SBC Executive Committee in early 1994, called for an end of "investigative reporting" by Christian editors and reporters, saying they should major on the "fabulous things" that are happening in the kingdom. Jack E. Brymer, Sr., editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, responded that "As long as Baptist leaders continue the use of 'executive sessions' to cover up their actions, Baptist journalism will need more, not less, investigative reporting."
After Young's speech, the SBC Christian Life Commission (CLC) severely criticized the Biblical Recorder, the newsjournal of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, in a four-page letter mailed to 3,547 North Carolina pastors at a cost of about $1,300. Baptist Press reported the mailing was the first time a SBC agency had sent a letter to state pastors chiding a state agency.
The SBC Executive Committee began publishing SBC LIFE in 1993 to replace the Baptist Program, published since 1925. Since it is published by the Executive Committee, SBC LIFE, an official SBC publication, is a full-color public relations news journal with articles to promote the fundamentalist agenda and attack all opposing views within the SBC. In the June-July 1994 issue, editor Mark Coppenger blasted the CBF, Religious News Service, Christianity Today, Baptist Press, and Baptist state papers, with the exception of the Indiana Baptist, with what one Baptist state paper editor said was a "scissors and past tirade."
In December 1987, Jack U. Harwell, long-time editor of The Christian Index, state paper for Georgia, took early retirement in protest of a fundamentalist board of directors restricting editorial freedom. He was named editor of BAPTISTS TODAY in June 1988 and served in that position until his retirement at the end of 1997.
in September 1994, Jack Brymer, editor of Florida's state paper, The Baptist Witness, cited threats to his professional integrity before resigning in protest of continued attempts by the board of directors to restrict his editorial freedom. Among other things, the board was pressuring not to use news stories from Associated Baptist Press. Brymer was named to a newly created post of director of publications at Samford University in Alabama in September 1995.
The lesson here is that fundamentalist strength at the national and state levels has eliminated a free SBC press. SBC and most state convention media arms are now little more than propaganda machines. I hope the story of the destruction of true journalism in Southern Baptist life will inspire all of us, but especially journalism students at OBU. They need to know that before Baptist editors and reporters were P.R. hacks for the fundamentalists, there were actually courageous journalists who pursued and reported the truth without fear of recrimination. As we will see in the next post, fundamentalist tendencies in OBU's administration have been all to evident in their attempts to censor and control student journalism on Bison Hill.