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ABP editor admits spinning news during SBC; acknowledges funding from CBF, BGCT & others

ATLANTA (BP)–Associated Baptist Press editor Bob Allen said his news service takes an active a role to inform the secular media, not only through its subscriptions, but when Southern Baptists “become news once a year” when ABP uses the SBC newsroom to keep journalists abreast of Baptist news.

“We do fill a role of informing these informers,” said Allen. “When Southern Baptists become news once a year, we get a rash of phone calls from people who say, ‘what is the story this year, what are you hearing?'”

“We also, quite frankly, in the SBC newsroom, have a role in helping to spin the stories that the secular media report,” Allen said.

Allen’s remarks were made at a workshop during the 10th annual General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, June 28.

“We don’t spin news, or we try not to,” he said, answering a participant’s question about previous remarks. “That’s our goal.”

“Obviously we make editorial decisions about how to present a story, but ours are about what we think is newsworthy,” Allen said. “We don’t reprint news releases from CBF or SBC.”

Even though ABP receives half of its budget from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the Baptist General Association of Virginia, and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, the news agency maintains they are “the first and only independent” news service for Baptists.

Allen’s comments to CBF participants were preceded by statements from Phillip Poole, ABP’s executive director, on the history and purpose of ABP, which Allen said began after the SBC executive committee released former editors Dan Martin and Al Shackelford in 1990.

Allen said that move caused a shift at Baptist Press, prompting “advocacy” instead of “empowerment.” He contended they were designed to “operate with complete freedom,” and be different from state Baptist papers, where, as an editor, he said, “most of these people were political appointments and most of the people were there to kill, steal and destroy and give the editor a hard time.”

Baptist Press, the daily national news service of the Southern Baptist Convention, created in 1946 at the request of state Baptist papers editors, has come under heavy criticism by CBF spokespersons and supporters, including the Baptist General Convention of Texas, who have attempted to define the Baptist Press purpose as public relations, rather than as news.

In a June 25 letter, CBF coordinator for communications and marketing David Wilkinson told BP Editor Art Toalston, “We do not consider Baptist Press to be a news organization, but rather the public relations arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Baptist Press provides national and international news to 41 state Baptist newspapers with a combined readership of 1.16 million and has a central bureau in Nashville, Tenn., as well as four active bureaus in Richmond, Va., Atlanta, LifeWay Christian Resources, and Washington. The news service also maintains two Internet news sites, BPNews.net and BPSports.net. BPSports is the only religious news service offering daily coverage of Baptist athletics.

“We don’t see ourselves in competition with Baptist Press, which is the public relations news service of the Southern Baptist Convention,” said Poole, despite his earlier comments about spinning the news. “We don’t see ourselves in that role.”

Noting leading secular religion reporters like Peggy Wehmeyer, along with New York Times’ Gus Niebuhr and The Atlanta Journal and Constitution’s Gayle White, Poole said they are more likely to use ABP as a source than BP. All three journalists could not be reached to verify Poole’s claims.

“We are finding, this is going to sound self-serving, but it is true,” said Poole, “we are the information source that the secular media turns to information about Baptist life.”

“So we are the trusted media source, or the information source for secular newspapers,” Poole said, maintaining that in spite of expecting to receive $141,000 from CBF, out of an $800,000 annual budget, “there are no strings attached.”

“We cover CBF just like we do any other entity,” Poole said. “If there’s good to report, we report the good. If there’s difficulty, we report the difficulty without making news or value judgments about that.”

Poole said ABP’s commitment is to “tell the truth and trust the people.” The “methodology” for that has been changing in the past ten years, however, charged Poole, and a network of state Baptist papers exists that uses ABP news, “some crediting us for that, some having to do it somewhat subversively, but still using our news.”

Despite previous remarks about state Baptist papers and editors, Allen, former editor of the True-Union, a news journal of the Baptist convention of Maryland-Delaware, said ABP expected early cooperation from editors.

“The beginning of ABP was supposed to be a consortium of Baptist state papers and funded by the Baptist state papers,” Allen said. “The editors did a very good job of proclaiming that, but a very poor job of actually putting the money up. So we owe a great deal of gratitude to the CBF for stepping in, in those early days, and putting us as a line-item in the budget. That’s the kind of money that’s given us the stability to where we have grown in a lot of ways.”

Answering another workshop participant’s question about ABP’s moral or theological stances, or its reaction to faith-based initiatives and other issues, and how that’s handled through either its news service or their magazine, Faithworks, Allen responded by saying the word publication is confusing and said ABP is a wire service.

“The separation of church and state is a very key issue that we follow. Our Washington bureau, as Phillip [Poole] said, is really a main focus, that’s a historic Baptist principle and those are our driving principles,” said Allen. “The things that Baptists have always believe in about the historic separation of church and state, priesthood of the believer, autonomy of the local church-those are the principles that we embrace personally and I think that’s reflected in our news coverage.”

Allen’s and Poole’s remarks came from a tape-recorded session of a workshop at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s annual assembly at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, June 28. The session, “Free To Be Informed,” was one of about 75 workshops recorded. Tapes were sold at the GWCC site.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan