Officials Slam Baptist Press Despite Freedom Heritage
GEORGE W. CORNELL
Jul. 06, 1990
NEW YORK (AP) _ A new wrinkle has turned up in longtime Baptist links to American freedoms, but it seems a different kind this time.
While historians give Baptists special credit for First Amendment guarantees of no state church and freedom of religion, assembly, speech and press, Southern Baptist officials have clamped down on their own press.
''In essence, they're rejecting the Baptist heritage,'' said R. Gene Puckett of Raleigh, N.C., editor of that state's denominational weekly, the Biblical Recorder.
Other denominational editors across the country also said last week's order for ouster of the professionally respected news executives of Baptist Press service aimed at controlling it for partisan purposes.
It ''is a blatant attempt to silence a free press'' that has operated in the denomination for nearly half a century, said J.B. Fowler, president of the Southern Baptist Press Association.
He called it ''sad day'' contrary to the Baptist dedication to freedom, adding, ''Baptists, of all great Protestant denominations, have always been champions of religious freedom and a free press.''
With the crackdown on the denominational news service by a now dominant fundamentalist administration, however, editors of state Baptist newspapers were considering alternate news-gathering means.
Fowler of Albuquerque, N.M., editor of the Baptist New Mexican, said editors of most of the 38 Southern Baptist state weeklies were to meet this Saturday in Dallas to examine various possibilities.
''Every viable alternative will be explored by the editors to be sure that Baptist church members continue to get the truth,'' he said.
In early America, Baptists had a catalytic role in securing freedoms, including a free press. Freedom of religion itself first was planted by Baptist Roger Williams in the colony of Rhode Island.
When ratification of the U.S. Constitution was at stake in 1789, needed support of Virginia Baptists came only after James Madison assured them of speedy addition of the first 10 amendments - the Bill of Rights.
''It's ironic that Baptists, with their great contributions to freedom, would now be trying to control the press and do away with its freedom,'' said Jack Brymer of Jacksonville, Fla., editor of the Baptist Witness.
''When people are denied access to information from which they can discern the truth, rest assured that their other freedoms also soon will be denied.''
Baptist Press, which distributes daily news reports to about 400 outlets, including 38 Baptist weeklies with a combined circulation if l.8 million, was in a semiblackout early this week.
A main offering was the text of a statement by the Rev. Sam W. Pace, chairman of the denomination's executive committee, about its officers asking that Baptist Press' chief editors either resign quietly or be dismissed.
It was felt ''the denomination would be better served by handling this quietly and graciously,'' Pace said, adding that committee president Harold Bennett gave the removal notice in the ''most loving'' manner.
However, after BP director Alvin Shackleford and news editor Dan Martin noted that bylaws gave no authority to committee officers alone to fire personnel, Bennett called a special meeting July 17 on the case.
With the 77-member committee now strongly dominated by fundamentalists, the ouster seemed a foregone conclusion.
The fundamentalist administration insists on conformity to recently elaborated views of the Bible by all denominational personnel, and Baptist Press has carried forthright accounts of conflict over that policy.
Pace of Lawton, Okla., said ''an ever-increasing perception of the vast majority'' of his committee was that Baptist Press has been ''the very opposite'' of ''fair, equitable and balanced''. Such criticisms by fundamentalist leaders have intensified as they achieved expanding control of the 14.9 million-member denomination, culminating with a sweeping victory at its June convention in New Orleans.
However, impartial studies have found the service highly reliable, objective and adhering to the best journalistic standards. So concluded a panel of secular news professionals retained six years ago to evaluate the service.
Two years ago, the Southern Baptist Press Association conducted another extensive examination of BP news reports and concluded they were as fair and balanced ''as humanly possible.''
''Religion reporters have considered Baptist Press the best journalistic service of any denomination,'' says John Dart of the Los Angeles Times, president of the Religion Newswriters Association, made up of specialists covering religion.
Don McGregor of Jackson, Miss., editor of the state's Baptist Record, said they ''have stuck to the ethics of journalism right down the line.''
Ousting them ''says that when a power group gets hold of a denomination, they may not stop at any length to accomplish their purposes,'' he added. ''The first thing they want to control is means of disseminating information.''
Bob Terry of Jefferson City, Mo., editor of Word and Way, called the crackdown ''a bloodletting.''
Julian Pentecost of Richmond, Va., editor of the Religious Herald, said ''the people responsibile for what has happened want a controlled and manipulated press.''