8. Freedom of the Press

July 19, 2016

Dr. Rick Patrick | Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church, Sylacauga, AL

In 1787, Edmund Burke, the British author, orator and philosopher, made the following statement during a parliamentary debate: “There are three estates in Parliament but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder there sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

Who can argue with the significance and influence of this Fourth Estate? A truly free press in all of its modern forms—print journalism, broadcasting, blogging and social media—provides information capable of shaping public opinion. As British author Edward Bulwer-Lytton opined in a sentence for the ages: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Today, unfortunately, print journalism is taking it on the chin. Dailies have been reduced to thrice weeklies. By the time the newsprint begins staining a person’s fingers, they have already been informed (or misinformed) by blogs, broadcasts, tweets and social media shares. In the 21st Century, the Fourth Estate is everybody on the internet.

Nevertheless, organizations like Baptist Press serve an important function in the life of our denomination. Bloggers have day jobs. Their words are free, and too often, the reader gets exactly what he pays for. Bloggers have neither the time nor the resources to engage in full time journalism. Often, bloggers apply more relaxed publication standards than major media corporations. Blogs offer content frequently colored by subjective personal opinion. Official news sources generally take the time to print more fair and balanced stories.

One overarching factor typically allows major media outlets the freedom to report both good and bad news whenever covering a particular beat. Both in terms of finance and job supervision, they are not at all controlled by the organization whose news events they cover. If they were, of course, the not-so-subtle pressure would always exist to write puff pieces only focusing on the positive news while considerably downplaying potentially negative news.

Reporters and editors should never be forced into the awkward position of determining whether or not to bite the hand that feeds them. If a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention has earned a less than flattering portrait based on the choices, decisions and statements they have made, then the press needs to be free to present that perspective without any fear of recrimination, such as a loss of employment or reduction in pay.

Granted, the danger exists that such a free press will assume a hostile posture practically antagonistic toward the denomination. They might occasionally ask hard questions that portray the denomination in a pejorative light. This is simply the price one must pay to have a free press capable of independently reporting the news Southern Baptists need to hear. The only alternative is a denominationally owned and operated media outlet fully dependent on the denomination itself for its livelihood, thereby creating an intrinsic conflict of interest when it comes to unbiased reporting.

The value of an independent press is worth the risk of unflattering coverage. In countries where news outlets are government owned, the news is nothing but sheer propaganda. Who can forget the incredulous reports of Baghdad Bob, the Iraqi Information Minister under Saddam Hussein? Who can forget the coverage of the Chernobyl disaster by the Soviet Union? Who can forget the North Korean media reports of their late Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-il, who routinely shot three or four holes-in-one per day, including the best round of golf ever recorded, a score of 38 under par in Pyongyang?

Although Baptist Press has not reported bowling averages of 300 for Frank Page and Al Mohler, the principle behind this wall of separation between organizations and the press is just as conceptually sound when applied to the church as it is when applied to the state. It is possible for Southern Baptists to set up some kind of independent foundation for the coverage of Southern Baptist news that would extricate the press from any administrative or financial oversight by the denomination itself.

We need a Baptist Press with a journalistic approach somewhere between Woodward and Bernstein on the one hand and the secretaries who produce our clip-art filled newsletters on the other. Privatizing Baptist Press would be a step in the right direction to encourage rigorous investigation and balanced coverage even when the news is not necessarily good and especially when the news might be considered potentially controversial. Sharing the Good News is a job for preachers. Sharing the bad news, on occasion, is a job for journalists.

Transparency Agenda Survey Results

In a recent poll of SBC Today readers, we asked Southern Baptists to indicate if they “approved” or “disapproved” of the idea that we “Create a funding source to allow a truly independent Baptist Press.” With 253 respondents, 68.77% approved of such an action, while 31.23% disapproved.

This article addresses Item Eight of the Ten Item Transparency Agenda. You may READ the Transparency Agenda or COMPLETE the survey yourself. To read the articles reporting results from the other survey items, see the links below: 

ITEM ONE 

ITEM TWO

ITEM THREE

ITEM FOUR

ITEM FIVE

ITEM SIX

ITEM SEVEN

ITEM NINE

ITEM TEN

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Will McRaney

A great reminder Rick. All of us make decisions based on our values and perspectives, which includes having good, accurate, cover the issues information. We can only address needs and opportunities as we are entrusted with the truth to properly inform our perspectives. Journalists who are free, help us to be informed free from the dangers of propaganda. My parents used to say, “I am down on what I am not up on.”

The opposite of love and support in the SBC is not hard truth-telling stories, but indifference. Journalists with free voices can reduce indifference, even when the news they share does not come from the PR department. Fair and professional journalism is essential to helping Baptists have informed perspectives and thereby more prepared to make better decisions. AND, we can trust our big God to handle the SBC if we walk in the light and speak the truth in love.

Peter Lumpkins

“The value of an independent press is worth the risk of unflattering coverage.”

Precisely one of my points, Rick, in my latest post dealing with New Orleans Baptist Association’s administrative committee’s incendiary demand for Louisiana’s Baptist Message to cease writing articles they find objectionable. “We want them stopped” are their exact frog words as if Editor, Will Hall, should have jumped. The coverage Hall has given to their close friends may not be flattering but neither do responsible journalists keep flattery close to their keyboards.

With that, I am…
Peter

Randall Cofield

Dr. Patrick,

A couple of questions come to mind when reading your OP.

First, is it not the job of the press to report the facts sans their opinion and leave it to the consumer to draw their own conclusions? And secondly, isn’t the Baptist press held to a significantly higher standard than the secular press?

Much of what is passed off as “press,” here is actually nothing of the sort.

    Rick Patrick

    As to your first question, no, that is not the job of the press. It is the job of *news reporters* to report the facts only. But *editorialists* exist for a reason. It is their job to offer a viewpoint on the news, an interpretation of it, an opinion based on facts, but arguing in favor of or against a particular course of action. I want both news stories and editorials in Baptist journalism.

    Second, I think a Christian who works for the New York Times should tell the truth in news stories and share his opinion based on truth in editorial articles. I think a Christian who works for Baptist Press should do the same. Christians should tell the truth whether their newspaper is secular or spiritual. So, I suppose I would not say that Baptist Press involves a higher standard, but the same high standard of truth telling as the secular press. The Christian writer remains constant in both, and the writer is the one who should tell the truth, and be brutally honest about the opinions they have formed based on that truth.

    I disaffirm your characterization of “press” as being something less than that. Some of my favorite journalists include Will Hall, Gerald Harris and Todd Starnes, because they write the truth regardless of what may be politically correct at the moment. They are also unafraid to call it like they see it. I realize you may not agree with them all of the time. But we need to hear their voices. They should be respected. If anything they have written is untrue, then it is incumbent upon those who disagree with them to point out their inaccuracies. If people simply disagree with their opinions, they are welcome to write their own letters and editorials. But in my opinion we should not be demonizing good Baptist journalists for their work. These are veteran, experienced journalists writing stories that just happen to question some of the words and actions of rookie, inexperienced SBC leaders. Whether or not every Southern Baptist agrees with them, they deserve to be heard. That’s part of having a free press.

      Randall Cofield

      That’s quite the spin there, Doc. Which may explain why you seemingly fail to recognize the difference between editorials based on facts and hit-pieces where the editorialist plants his feet firmly in the thin air of conjecture, conspiracy theories, and Anti-Calvinism Derangement Syndrome.

      That the majority (if not all) of the NOBA signatories are Traditionalists should be a hint for you and for those they addressed. The marginalization you are experiencing is self-inflicted.

      At the end of the day, I think you are better than this.

        Rick Patrick

        While we are on the topic of spin, if you wish to recast these factually based editorials as “hit pieces” full of ‘conjecture, conspiracy theories and Anti-Calvinism Derangement Syndrome,’ I am afraid you are going to have to give examples. You have made three unsupported claims. As I mentioned earlier, it is incumbent upon you to show where their editorials miss the mark. If these journalists deserve correction, please point out where and how they have written opinions based on falsehood.

        As for these few brothers whose basic theological framework you claim I share, perhaps that is true. I don’t believe any of them have signed the Traditional Statement, but that, of course, would be true of millions of like-minded Southern Baptists who believe like I do but have not yet read the document or signed it.

        Why should I feel marginalized by seven or eight people in the murky middle when 300 people attended the last Connect 316 Banquet and 1,077 people have signed the Traditional Statement? I like these brothers in New Orleans. I pray for them. They are CP supporting Pastors. We are fellow Southern Baptists.

        But with all due respect, they don’t get to tell me what issues I am allowed to consider important enough for us to discuss as a denomination. They don’t get to shame me into silence or tell me that good Baptists are seen and not heard. They are neither my mama nor my daddy. If I believe that the best way forward in our convention is to discuss our issues rather than to ignore them, then I am entitled to that belief.

        To be crystal clear, I don’t feel marginalized by these few brothers. I feel marginalized by the Calvinist-Gospel Coalition-Acts 29-9 Marks regime currently driving the agenda in the SBC. Apparently, Traditionalists are only going to be heard in our convention when we grow in sufficient numbers that we can no longer be ignored.

Lydia

Totalist Movements or groups demand conformity (they call it unity) by censoring and silencing dissent or opposition. In religious groups this is usually accomplished by shaming, accusations of gossip and guilt and labeling all inquiries as sin. Driscoll called it sinning by questioning. There can be no freedom of the press within the movement.

Lifton labels this one as:

1. Milieu (Environmental) Control – Control over the members’ flow of information and social interaction. In many groups, there is a “no gossip” rule that keeps people from expressing their doubts or misgivings about what is going on. Members are taught to report those that break the rule, a practice that increases dependence on the leadership. They are sometimes told not to believe anything they see or hear reported by the media.

How Milieu Control is Used in Totalistic Groups:

Information is deliberately held back from members, and many times it is twisted and distorted, even presented with lies. What members might know at any given time varies with their position held in the organization and is controlled at the top of the pyramid structure (headquarters).

Members are told not to trust any other material that is critical of the group, or to read any Christian literature that does not come from their headquarters or leader. Members are not to get close to those who are outside the group, or associate with former members. They are not to observe holidays they consider “pagan” and, in many cases, birthdays. Higher education is frowned upon, as is getting involved in their community. Their time is taken up with holy day or feast observances and many other activities that group members engage in.

When they write, speak or think, it is to reflect only the group’s philosophy and not their own ideas or feelings. As a result, they do not test their own reality around them. Members are taught that to discuss their doubts and misgivings about doctrine, about “God’s Apostle,” “the Elijah,” the local minister, Headquarters, sermons, etc., is “gossip” and/or “lies,” and should not be engaged in. They come to feel they are seeing all things as God sees them. Independent, self-expressing is thwarted.

Members are instructed to keep an eye on the others and let the minister know when another member is breaking the Sabbath, not tithing, listening to rock music, seeing a doctor, or doing any number of things which headquarters has spelled out as sin. Elders and deacons listen in on conversations between members before services to make sure there is no “bad talk.” (Membership contracts and church discipline as not obeying whatever the elder demands is biblical like staying married to a pedophile)

If the group or leader is exposed by the media for financial improprieties, immorality, fraud, abuse, violation of the civil law, lying, etc., the members attribute this news to “Satan attacking the Work” and being “Satan’s lies.” The frequent use of the word “attack” is a smokescreen to cause members to focus on Satan and perceived “enemies,” instead of what is really going on. (Or they make jokes at the expense of victims to young pastors with no critical thinking skills at conferences)

Kimberly Rock-Shelton

The “problem” with a free press is that one of its functions is to hold those in power accountable. Another function of a free press is to speak truth to power and point out when the emperor has no clothes. None of these three functions endears the press to an authoritarian power structure.

Truth telling is not a high value ethic in SBC life right now. Let’s just imagine certain people speaking a truth like, ” Well, I’ve got my list of people here that I want in specific positions because of their loyalty to me personally, not the SBC. Once appointed, they will be accountable only to me. To ensure this happens, I’m going to do this in spite of bylaws, rules and tradition. Oh, and their compensation and terms of employment are need to know.”

I’m sure that if a truth like that were spokeneveryone, out loud, in public from the SBC Convention platform, everyone would be okay with it.

I find the role of a free press much like a guard against Pharisaical hypocrisy. To paraphrase Christ, “What is said in a secret meeting will be tweated on the internet for all to read. All that secret planning will be revealed on a video on YouTube for all to witness.”

One would think people with advanced degrees from seminary who pride themselves on Biblical inerrancy and literalism would take more of Christ’s words a little more seriously.

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