It's all about respect
February 14 2003 by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor

It's all about respect | Friday, Feb. 14, 2003

Friday, Feb. 14, 2003

It's all about respect

By Tony W. Cartledge BR Editor

It has never been more important for Baptist people to be well informed on issues relative to Baptist life, but that's harder to do in some places than in others.

In some conventions, the state paper is primarily an in-house promotional mailing similar to a church or associational newsletter, offering little in the way of news coverage.

Some states have papers formatted as a newspaper, but directly controlled by convention administrators. The papers may include news items from beyond the state, but their function is mainly promotional. In states where the convention's identity is perceived as subordinate to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), papers may also devote considerable space to promoting the agenda of SBC officials.

The most fortunate states have papers that work in a cooperative relationship with the state convention, but are not controlled by the convention. These papers generally receive some funding from the state convention in the form of payment for advertising or direct subsidies from the state's cooperative giving budget, but rely on subscription income and advertising revenue for the lion's share of their operating budgets.

Such papers typically have a board of directors elected by the state convention. They work in cooperation with the state convention to provide news coverage of denominational events, but also cover local, national and international events that are relevant to the Baptist individuals and churches within the state.

Even with these papers, some editors must work under written or unwritten constraints that limit the kind of news they are allowed to cover. Some are expected to tout the party line alone in their coverage of SBC events, for example, and instructed to withhold all coverage of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF).

Some editors also labor in settings that strongly discourage --or expressly forbid - the expression of opinions critical of the state convention or the SBC.

These constraints, not unlike those put on the government press in countries like China or Iraq, effectively rob the papers of their ability to function as a free and responsible press, and rob the readers of both balance and truth.

And that's a crying shame.

Tears were certainly appropriate in Georgia last month, when Bill Neal, the editor of the nation's oldest Baptist newspaper, was relieved of his duties at The Christian Index. The once-proud Index was a primary and trusted source of information for most of its history, but just over 25 years ago, near the end of Jack Harwell's 21-year tenure as editor, a watchdog committee was appointed to curb all criticism of the convention's conservative shift. Unwilling to work under such restraints, Harwell resigned. He was followed by Albert Mohler, who turned the paper's focus sharply to the right before moving on to become president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In his 10 years as editor, Neal restored balance and respectability to the Index, winning awards and the respect of his peers.

Although Neal was rarely critical of the convention and provided only scant coverage of the Atlanta-based CBF, his directors demanded in 2001 that he cease all coverage of the CBF and submit all opinions or stories that might be deemed controversial to the board or to the executive director for approval.

As a loyal employee, Neal sought to work with integrity despite the obvious censorship imposed on his efforts. But, even that was not enough. In early January, Neal published a letter to the editor from a highly respected former president of the state convention. The letter begged to differ with a position taken by the state's current president, who is close to executive director Robert White.

Perhaps the timing was coincidental, but within the week, White called Neal to his office to "discuss his retirement plans," even though Neal had no such plans. Simultaneously, White dispatched an associate to the Index offices to send other employees home and to confiscate computers used by several staff members.

The following week, three additional Index employees were given their walking papers.

The dismissals were hurtful to the Index employees, but the next step showed major disrespect for all other Georgia Baptists. The Jan. 30 issue of the Index published a patent mistruth about the events in question, claiming that the paper's directors had agreed to grant Neal's "request" for early retirement.

It's disrespectful to lie to anyone - it's even more disrespectful to publish a transparent falsehood, expecting readers to set Christian ethics aside and wink at the truth along with the convention's heavy-handed leaders.

The SBC's Baptist Press distributed an earlier version of the story without questioning the accuracy of the statement, even though more complete accounts were widely available.

Readers of The Christian Index deserve better. The Index board clearly stated its intention to do a major overhaul of the paper that will de-emphasize its news function and retool it as a "proactive advocate" for evangelism in the state of Georgia.

That effectively removes the Index from the category of "denominational newspaper" and shifts it into the arena of public relations and unabashed advocacy journalism.

Those who believe readers deserve a balanced and broad-spectrum presentation of Baptist-related news and those who have supported the Index's founding values through its 181-year history will mourn the sea change in focus at the historic paper.

We are fortunate that our Baptist State Convention constitution provides a separate governing board for the Biblical Recorder and charges it with upholding the tenets of a free and responsible press.

Our directors have consistently supported that mission through the years, and our staff is fully committed to producing a paper that respects its readers by providing the information they deserve to know - not just what people in power want them to know.

That, I think, is worth a heartfelt prayer of gratitude.

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2/14/2003 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor | with 0 comments
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