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


I see there is a question about pornography on Mark Driscoll's website. I don't see anything related to that on his site. How do you come by that accusation?
2/25/2009 10:00:59 AM

Jonathan Merritt

You clearly think that Driscoll affirms sodomy with marriage in his pulpit. Many, including myself, would disagree with that characterization. That is clearly not the point. There are people all across America in many cities who affirm homosexual practice from the pulpit or undermine the authority of God's word or fill-in-the-blank... Why didn't Baptist Press target one of those? Why Driscoll? Why now? Why so sloppy? Why work so hard and so unethically to get THIS story out in THIS way? I think we all know the answers to those questions, and that is the last I will comment on the matter.

Thanks for such kind and thoughtful dialogue.
2/17/2009 2:20:42 PM

Tim Rogers

Thank you for your point by point clarification. I agree that we should not ask about something without explaining what we are asking. I also agree that news organizations should not be slanted, but I believe you would also agree with me that all news organizations are slanted to the degree of those who lead that particular organization. The timing of the article is something that you say is suspect. I can see where you would say that and concede to a certain extent that point. However, in the SEBTS quote that you referenced they say the article was <i>inaccurate in content</i>. You may feel the tactics of gaining quotes was unethical, you may believe the timing and the balance of the report points to a bias. However, could you point out where the charge of the article--Mark Driscoll's vulgarity and his affirming of sodomy within the marriage relationship--is something that is inaccruate? Also, if this teaching is intended for his congregation because of its nature, why upload it to U-Tube. With that in mind, why link on his blog to a website called Christian Nympho for a theological under girding of his teaching?
2/17/2009 6:32:26 AM

In calling me to discuss our posting of the guest column, Baptist Press clearly feels a strong need to issue a warning about what it says is pornography on Mark Driscoll's website: either pornograhy on Driscoll's site or direct links from the site to pornography. So BP was writing from a certain sense of Christian obligation to warn others of what they perceive as danger. I've not been a follower but I checked out a couple sermon clips on YouTube and was frankly impressed. He is current, frank, clear, entertaining and his gospel presentation is uncompromised. His congregation is primarily unmarried singles in what he calles the most unchurched city in America. He frankly tells them in the clips, "You must be born again." I don't know that either would cherish the comparison, but her reminds me of an early Tony Campolo whose frankness is startling until the message hits.
2/16/2009 6:32:41 PM

Jonathan Merritt

1. Interviewing individuals without full disclosure and applying their words to imply that they were speaking about something that they were not actually speaking about isn't just shoddy journalism. It is unethical.

2. The article only represented one fringe of opinion and failed to put out a balanced story. A press organization should do their best to remove bias from the piece. While this can never be completely done, Baptist Press' failure to even attempt to add balance is embarrassing. This is what the news industry calls "slanted."

3. The timing of the article says a lot. This New York Times piece used to anchor the story is months old. Why did they release it now? It seems to launch a thinly veiled attack on another Southern Baptist entity. Add to that a 2 year old quote from John MacArthur and you have a story so outdated that no serious news publication in America would classify it as "newsworthy."

While the first point is more than enough to scream "Dan Rather," the other two should--and have--caused justifiable outrage directed at an organization that should know better.
2/16/2009 4:35:14 PM

Tim Rogers

Just curious, but could you point to the inaccuracies you believe were involved in the BP story? Your point for David Tolliver and Brett Robbe are well taken. However, if they would have known they were addressing Mark Driscoll's promotion of sodomy within the intimate relationship of a husband and wife, do your really think they would have changed what they said? Also, shouldn't this type of discussion be reserved for the marriage relationship instead of being addressed from the pulpit and uploaded to U-Tube?

I am very cautious here because as an alum of SEBTS I do not want to come across as taking a stand against them. I agree with them that we learn from people that we do not agree with on every jot. But a promotion of perverted sex is something it seems should not be defended and should seriously be addressed.
2/16/2009 11:15:14 AM

Jonathan Merritt
Yes, Roger. The best place to go to access the pinnacle of journalism is a baptist blog.
2/15/2009 11:39:29 PM

Roger Dennis
Too bad Melissa Lilley's piece didn't appear in the Biblical Recorder when it was released along with all of the ABP releases which appear there often. It doesn't matter - seldom does any of the news releases the BSC writes ever appear in the Biblical Recorder. O well - at least we have the blogs. Between Baptist Press and the Biblical Recorder - journalism is at a low ebb in the SBC.
2/13/2009 5:39:58 PM

Brent Hobbs
Thanks Jonathan, you expressed many of the same concerns I have over this whole situation. I think there are some people at BP wishing they had thought better of running that article. At least I hope so.
2/13/2009 5:08:34 PM

Got news for you, young conservatives: Baptist Press was discredited as a reliable source of news the day Al Shackleford and Dan Martin were summarily fired and escorted from the building.
2/13/2009 4:46:18 PM

Baptist Press is one of three news services the Biblical Recorder utilizes to expand staff coverage of national and international Baptist news. It is a part of the SBC Executive Committee staff, based in Nashville.
2/13/2009 1:24:59 PM