February 2009

Unfair, Unbalanced, and Unacceptable

February 13 2009 by Jonathan Merritt

Whenever conservative Christians decry the “bias of the liberal media” there is almost always a call for “fair and balanced” reporting. This week, we again learn what being fair and balanced means to Baptist Press,  the “news service” of the Southern Baptist Convention.

During the past weekend, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest brought Mark Driscoll to town for their annual 20/20 Conference. Driscoll, a fiery, young, conservative who isn’t afraid to call sin by name and has a penchant for controversy, shared the stage with other respected conservative theologians like CJ Mahaney and Southeastern Seminary President Daniel Akin. The chapel was standing room only, and I heard from several attendees that the content was “Christ-centered,” “evangelistic” and “enlightening.”

Less than a week later, however, Mark Kelly of Baptist Press released a story entitled “Driscoll’s vulgarity draws media attention.” It had the subtlety of a steam engine, and attempted to outline the controversy that Driscoll has endured for bluntly addressing “racy” topics like sexuality.

In the spirit of balance, Kelly represented only one point of view, which asserts that Driscoll is vulgar preacher whose humor “degrades the Gospel and the pulpit.” At one point, the article even rehashes language Driscoll used in the pulpit many years ago for which he has since publicly and repeatedly repented.

The lead sources for the article was Ingrid Schlueter, an Christian talk show personality who has recently criticized everything from Veggie Tales to Rick Warren, a New York Times Magazine article, and a quote by John MacArthur from 2006. Two individuals from SBC life were also quoted in this piece: Bret Robbe, director of leadership and adult publishing at LifeWay Christian Resources, and David Tolliver, executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention.

A source close to these individuals told me that neither Robbe nor Tolliver knew they were being interviewed for a story in which they would be quoted. Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, expressed his disappointment in Baptist Press and publicly noted on his blog today that Robbe “was commenting on handling delicate subjects. He was not commenting on Mark Driscoll.”

In the spirit of fairness, Southeastern responded to the piece on their blog saying, “We believe our students can learn from a variety of conservative evangelical pastors without slavishly copying the ministries or convictions of any one leader.” Regarding the Baptist Press story, the blog asserted, “We were very disappointed in the BP piece, which we believe was inaccurate in content and harsh in tone.”

My thoughts return to the release of an environmental declaration that I and several other Southern Baptists worked on in March 2008.

“Less than 24 hours after the story appeared in national media, Baptist Press had a story distancing the denomination from the document,” the Christian Index reported. They went on to note that Baptist Press “generated an additional 13 stories over the next 8 publishing days. The majority of those took issue with the topic....” During this time, I left multiple voicemails and sent several emails to BP Editor Will Hall to clarify journalistic inaccuracies an offer the other side of the story but I received no reply.

Unfortunately, the recent face-off between Southeastern and Baptist Press is emblematic of a larger trend. The Driscoll story is only the latest in what is becoming a pattern of bias that is discrediting BP as a reliable source of news.

Conservative Christians who believe news organizations must be fair and balanced in their reporting, should be justifiably upset at Baptist Press’ recent brand of journalism. We can do better, and Southern Baptists should demand better from a press organization that bears the name “Baptist.”

(EDITOR'S NOTE — Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer who writes regularly for publications such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and HomeLife, Christian Single, and Outreach magazines. He serves as the Minister to Single Adults at Cross Pointe Church (SBC) in Duluth, GA. You can connect with him at jonathanmerritt.com.)

2/13/2009 7:16:00 AM by Jonathan Merritt | with 11 comments