ATLANTA (BP)–Seven state Baptist paper editors signed on last week to a letter asking CBF to “reconsider its decision to deny press credentials to reporters for Baptist Press or any other Baptist affiliated entity” assigned to cover the General Assembly June 28-30 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta.
“This action is contrary to one of our cherished mainstream Baptist distinctives,” read the letter. “The free flow of information is vital to the health and well-being of Baptists.”
The letter was written in response to a decision by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship media liaison David Wilkinson to deny credentials for two Baptist Press writers assigned to cover the CBF’s annual assembly.
In a memorandum to Baptist Press editor Art Toalston, Wilkinson said Baptist Press was not “a news organization, but rather the public relations arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
In the letter, John Yeats, editor of the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger, said: “We find this decision to be contrary to the best interest of our readers, as well as your own constituency. No organization should selectively discriminate against certain news organizations seeking the opportunity to have the same access and privileges afforded to other news organizations. By not credentialing a news source, you are treating the journalist as a guest instead of a professional; furthermore, background information is not readily accessible to non-credentialed reporters.”
Baptist Press had earlier in the week phoned Wilkinson to provide him with the names of the two writers who would be covering the event, Russell Moore and Joni Hannigan.
“We have no intentions of prohibiting access to the newsroom by your Baptist Press personnel, even though the services of the newsroom are provided for journalists covering the general assembly for their respective news organization,” reads part of a letter sent June 25 from Wilkinson, coordinator for communications and marketing, to Baptist Press.
Will Hall, vice president for news services and executive editor of Baptist Press, said he was disappointed that Southern Baptist reporters were denied credentials.
“The allegation that Baptist Press is a ‘public relations arm’ is nothing more than a ruse by the CBF, the BGCT and their supporters to draw attention away from factual news reported by Baptist Press about people and events that affect the life, work and ministry of Southern Baptists,” Hall said. “It is a common refrain by the CBF and its partners like the Associated Baptist Press and the Baptist Standard.”
“But one need only look at the publicly known ties among these organizations to understand the politics that are being served by this attempt to frame Baptist Press as something less than a national news service,” Hall added.
Despite public attacks from the leaders of the BGCT and editors of the Baptist Standard and Associated Baptist Press, Hall said reporters from these organizations have never been denied credentials to cover the Southern Baptist Convention.
“While knowing the intent of these critics of the SBC is to ‘spin’ the news, even in the newsroom at the SBC annual meeting, we nonetheless have tried to be a gracious host to them in the past and we will continue to offer our hospitality in the future,” he said. “It is unfortunate that we cannot expect the same hospitality.”
At issue was not the question of whether reporters would receive access, said Lisa Jones, associate coordinator for communication for CBF, but the fact they would not be allowed to register and be provided with newsroom services afforded credentialed media representatives.
In a telephone conversation to Hannigan on the morning of June 26, Jones told her an advisory was in effect and that no persons in the newsroom were to assist the BP writers.
The advisory Jones referred to was one also referenced in the letter Wilkinson faxed June 25 from the Atlanta office of CBF. The advisory said neither Wilkinson nor Daniel Vestal, CBF coordinator, “will respond to inquiries of any nature by any employee or representative of Baptist Press.”
Of 39 Baptist state paper editors, those who signed on the request were: James A. Smith, Florida Baptist Witness; Allen Spencer, Colorado, Rocky Mountain Baptist; Chip Bayer, Indiana Baptist; Bob Simpson, Maryland, Baptist Life; Ed Ernsting, Northwest Baptist Witness; and Gary Ledbetter, Southern Baptist Texan.
North Carolina Bibilical Recorder editor Tony Cartledge told BP writer Joni Hannigan at an assembly breakout session June 29 he believed CBF should have issued credentials for the meetings.
“My personal feeling is that Baptist Press should be given credentials to come to CBF, just as other organizations are given credentials to cover the SBC,” said Cartledge. “I just think fair is fair.”
David Currie, a strong supporter of the CBF and a frequent critic of the SBC, also raised concerns about denying credentials to Baptist Press during a CBF workshop, according to a taped recording of the meeting.
“I’m not sure I agree with that,” said Currie of CBF’s refusal to grant credentials. “I mean they’re covering it anyway. But I think we refused credentials on the basis that we don’t consider Baptist Press to be authentically press. And if you read their material that’s a legitimate concern, but I’m not sure that should have been done.”
When a workshop participant commented on whether the same argument could be made about Associated Baptist Press, a self-proclaimed independent news service. Currie defended ABP, but continued to support BP.
“Well they [ABP] handle themselves quite a bit better, I think, than Baptist Press does,” Currie said. “I mean, if you read Baptist Press very often, that’s pretty rough stuff. But, in my opinion, that probably wasn’t a smart move. I understand it, but I don’t really agree with it.”
Moore is a Ph.D. student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Hannigan is a free-lance writer who has been covering Baptist news for twelve years. She also teaches English and journalism in the Atlanta area.
Hannigan said she is disappointed at the approach CBF took in the credentialing process.
“I teach my students that the first step in honest reporting is to make sure you make arrangements when you are covering an event,” she said. “Whether it’s state football game or a school board meeting, I insist they register and make sure they have proper credentials and are aware of the procedures.”
“I would have hoped that in this day and age, folks would remember that media individuals, especially those representing other Baptist entities, should be afforded the same respect and consideration as any other professional,” Hannigan added.
The SBC newsroom, operated by Baptist Press, credentialed 139 media representatives for meetings prior to and during the June 12-13 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans at the Superdome. No members of the working press were denied credentials, according to Will Hall, vice president of SBC news services and executive editor of Baptist Press.