Baptist Press: The CNN of the Baptist World!

When I was in law school at Florida State University, CNN was THE 24-hour cable news outlet.  In fact, it was the only such cable news source at the time.  When Operation Desert Storm commenced on January 17, 1991, I was glued to CNN for all the live, front-line news from Kuwait.  In July 1994, shortly before moving with my wife to Louisville to begin our studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I recovered from wisdom teeth surgery by watching the Pre-trial hearing in the O.J. Simpson murder case.  Later on, I would be sitting in our basement apartment at the Seminary Guest House watching CNN’s live coverage of the “not guilty” verdict (which doesn’t necessarily mean “innocent”) when it was handed down.  As a major political junkie, I would stay up into the wee hours of the night every Election Day watching CNN’s extensive political coverage.

All the while, I always knew in the back of my mind that CNN, like most of the mainstream media, leaned to the left in their reporting.  But, at least they had Crossfire, which allowed conservatives of that day to have a voice (albeit very small) on the only alternative news network to CBS, NBC, and ABC.  Then, in 1996, something monumental happened which impacted (and continues to impact) journalism and news in this country — Fox News was born.  On October 7, 1996, Fox News launched what would quickly become a wildly popular 24-hour cable news network that would give viewers a real news choice for the very first time.

It was not until I started watching Fox News regularly that I came to understand just how liberal CNN truly was (and is).  No longer would Americans have to swallow the liberal pabulum that the mainstream media — including CNN — would try to spoonfeed its viewers.  Instead, we would be offered a truly “fair and balanced” approach to news.  After all, real journalism, as the late James Deakin, long-time White House reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and one of my favorite professors at George Washington University taught us, journalistic reporting should be balanced, fair, and complete.  Although Professor Deakin probably would not have liked that Fox News uses the “fair and balanced” label to describe their journalistic standards, he could not argue that these standards were not what he taught and what he lived by, even if his reporting got him put on Nixon’s Enemies List.

James Deakin was no conservative, but he taught this conservative a healthy respect for journalism.  It is through the lens of his three criteria for objective reporting — balanced, fair, and complete — that I critique news stories.  And, just because a story happens to emanate from a source that I might otherwise find trustworthy does not mean that the story gets a pass.  Such is the case with the Baptist Press’ reporting on the Gerald Harris kerfuffle following his OPINION piece, “The Calvinists are here,” originally published in the (still) independent Christian Index, the autonomous Georgia Baptist Convention’s newspaper of record (see here for the article republished with proper permission granted).

Within 24 hours, Baptist Press had posted a “news” article responding to the Harris article.  Entitled ‘Encroachment of Calvinism’ concerns editor, the reporter, Erin Roach, quoted four direct sources who opposed Harris’ article.  These sources included Dr. R. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Dr. Danny Akin, President of The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Both seminaries are entities of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Also quoted in opposition to Harris’ article was Mike Ebert, the new NAMB’s Vice President of Communications and, Lifeway Christian Resources’ Corporate Communications Director, Marty King.  Being in the business of communications, both Ebert and King sure have a funny way of trying to advance their message to all Southern Baptists.  The way they responded to Harris almost makes one think that they were trying to communicate a message to a particular sub-culture within the Southern Baptist Convention.

Mr. Ebert’s response, as published in the BP article, is curious indeed.  I find it quite perplexing and disturbing that Ebert, an employee of one of our entities, would call Mr. Harris — the well-respected editor of The Christian Index — “a friend who has a passion for evangelism and missions” while at the same time accusing him of evoking “the McCarthyism of the 1950’s.”  Mr. King does no better, accusing Mr. Harris of publishing “false accusations without offering any evidence of their truthfulness.”   In other words, Mr. Harris and the Christian Index publish lies.  With friends like this, who needs . . .?

If the resources and power of the SBC’s public relations arm — which is, after all, what Baptist “Press” really is — can be marshalled so quickly to write a scathing rebuttal to the Harris piece, one would rightly assume that BP’s article would at least have the pretense of objectivity.  Surely they would interview Mr. Harris to respond to an article written about him, wouldn’t they?  How about one or two Southern Baptists who agreed with Mr. Harris’ article?  Nope.  Instead, we are treated to more piling on supporting statements from Dr. Ed Stetzer (“The Baptist Bogeyman”) and Trevin Wax (SBC Voices interview), both principal players behind Lifeway’s The Gospel Project curriculum.  As an aside, why would it be necessary to ask whether contributors/advisers to The Gospel Project are Calvinists when the answer to that question is as clear as the blue New Mexico sky?

It has been five days since the Baptist Press article responding to Gerald Harris’ opinion piece in The Christian Index.  I suppose that BP could write another article which would quote Gerald Harris, as well as other Southern Baptists — both pastors and lay folk — who shared Mr. Harris’ perspective about the encroachment of Calvinism in SBC life.  The folks interviewed wouldn’t even have to be all Non-Calvinists.  I know a few Reformed Southern Baptists who happen to share Editor Harris’ perspective.  That would at least meet the minimum standards of balance, fairness, and completeness.

In a Baptist world with alternative sources of news — blogs and Associated Baptist Press come to mind — the Southern Baptist Convention’s public relations arm, Baptist Press, would do well to practice a modicum of objective reporting instead of publishing articles that appear to be nothing more than a blatant attempt to silence any opposition to the establishment.  Grassroots Southern Baptists are watching.  Before it’s too late, Dr. Page and others in leadership at the Executive Committee need to act to protect the continued integrity and trustworthiness of Baptist Press.  Otherwise, they will be viewed as the CNN of the Baptist World.  And, that’s not gonna be good for anyone!

17 comments for “Baptist Press: The CNN of the Baptist World!

  1. February 16, 2012 at 6:14 AM

    Howell,

    Excellent post. We are indeed living in interesting days where itching ears are being scratched for sure!

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  2. February 16, 2012 at 6:48 AM

    Howell,

    Sound piece and much needed. I linked to it on my site.

    With that, I am…
    Peter

  3. Jason Eldridge
    February 16, 2012 at 7:00 AM

    I have to disagree. Wasn’t Baptist Press simply giving what the Index did not give — the other side of the story? The Index is the one guilty of these charges, not Baptist Press. Sure, the Index may be allowing responses, but not in the same edition as the Harris editorial. That is significant. Baptist Press did what was only fair — allow those who had been criticized a chance to respond. If we have a problem with the responses, then we should criticize the responders, not Bapist Press.

  4. February 16, 2012 at 7:18 AM

    Brother Howell,

    Are you reading my text messages to myself? 🙂 Seriously, I have a two part series I am doing on this very thing. My point, while not close to the clear objectives you present, picks up on the same issue. However, I am looking at it from the perspective of no one dealing with the issues that Harris raises.

    Blessings,
    Tim

  5. Bill Mac
    February 16, 2012 at 7:29 AM

    Howell: Maybe you know more about this than I do. Is Harris a person of extreme influence? Is he important? I’m just wondering why his article is eliciting such a response? The piece is badly written and rambling, but the anti-Calvinism part is pretty tame. Nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times in the usual places, articulated better.

    But I agree about BP. It’s a PR device, not an outlet for serious journalism.

  6. February 16, 2012 at 8:06 AM

    Thanks for all who stopped by to comment this morning. Let me address a few of the comments and commenters more specifically:

    Bill Mac,

    All I know is what I read. I’m not sure I would call Harris a person of “extreme” influence, but as the long-time editor of The Christian Index, one of the premier Baptist State Convention papers (which, by the way, Dr. Albert Mohler also served as editor at one time), I would say that he is well-respected and a person of influence and integrity. The response to his opinion piece was swift and rather harsh. Of course, one might ask “why?” I don’t believe that the reporter, Erin Roach, would have published this piece without receiving some direction from higher up.

    Jason,

    There is a difference between an “OPINION” piece and a “NEWS” piece. Your analysis would be correct if we were talking about The Christian Index allowing others to respond. BP published a one-sided “news” piece that did not include one — not one — source who would have agreed with Harris’ piece. They certainly don’t have to do that in the same piece, so I’m still waiting for the balance and completeness in the reporting. I will, alas, wait in vain.

    Tim,

    If I were reading your texts, wouldn’t I necessarily be engaged in some kind of conspiratorial activity meant to disparage certain Baptist Bogeymen? We’re not supposed to let the outside world know that. I thought you knew better than to put that in writing 😉

    Thanks and God bless,

    Howell

  7. Tim
    February 16, 2012 at 8:18 AM

    Expose’ work at the Christian Index under Gerald Harris’ leadership has led to the change of two administrations at NAMB so yes, he is a man of significant influence. Some folks should be worried.

    • Bill Mac
      February 16, 2012 at 8:47 AM

      “Some folks should be worried”

      Who? And why?

  8. Max
    February 16, 2012 at 9:18 AM

    Howell, you write “I don’t believe that the reporter, Erin Roach, would have published this piece without receiving some direction from higher up.”

    Do you know who the current Baptist Press editor is? From BP’s “About Us” link, I understand that it is supported by Cooperative Program funds and partners with journalists from Lifeway, NAMB, IMB, the SBC ethics commission, and other SBC entities … but could find no listing of staff or editor.

    • February 16, 2012 at 11:00 AM

      According to a November 30, 2010 Baptist Press article (here), Baptist Press was restructured (another gift of the GCR). As Peter mentioned, the long-time VP of News Services of BP, Will Hall, was “let go” because of “downsizing.” Roger S. (Sing) Oldham, VP of Convention Communication and Relations, assumed oversight of BP while Art Toalston, ediotor of BP since 1992, continues to oversee daily operations (at least according to the BP story from November 2010). If you go on the Executive Committee’s “Communications Staff” Webpage (here), you will see listed Oldham and Toalston in addition to Michael K. Foust (Associate Editor), Mark Kelly (Assistant Editor and Senior Writer), Erin Roach (Assistant Editor) and, Laura Erlanson (Operations Coordinator).

      The buck stops at Toalston’s desk first, but ultimately at Oldham’s and Dr. Page’s. If BP does not want to lose whatever credability they have left, then they will use better “journalistic” practices in the future. This type of operation might work in the mega-church, but it will not be well received by the not-so- ignorant masses anymore! Thanks for the question. Hope that helps. God bless,

      Howell

  9. February 16, 2012 at 9:43 AM

    I don’t think there is an official ‘editor’. They formally closed Will Hall’s job down–the reason they cited to “let him go” and assigned the BP project to Sing Odem. I think I have my facts correct…

    With that, I am…
    Peter

    P.S. It looks like Jason is sorta worked up about this piece. He logged virtually the same comment on my site. Also, I answered about the same way Howell did–CONSPIRACY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :^0

  10. February 16, 2012 at 7:31 PM

    Thank you once again, Howell. BP would be well-served to heed your words and consider someone of your understanding of journalism to lead our press to higher ground. selahV

    • February 17, 2012 at 8:07 AM

      Hariette,

      You are welcome! Thank you for the kind words. Unless and until the SBC becomes less political (which I don’t see happening anytime soon), then Baptist Press will continue to be increasingly less Baptistic and less Press as time goes by. It still amazes me that “communications experts” at BP, Lifeway, and NAMB do such a poor job in communicating with Southern Baptists. Some people have not learned that the best thing that you can say in a certain situation (i.e., in response to Gerald Harris) is to say absolutely nothing. Thanks again and have a great day. God bless,

      Howell

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