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: