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Baptist Press chief in Washington denied congressional credentials

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Washington bureau chief of Baptist Press has been denied congressional press credentials after several years of effort to renew the long-standing privilege.
Joe Keenan, a spokesman for the Standing Committee of Correspondents, told Baptist Press the decision is final unless the Southern Baptist Convention news service becomes “ an independent and self-sustaining editorial entity.”
The decision has not prohibited Tom Strode, the Washington bureau chief of Baptist Press, from attending congressional hearings, Supreme Court oral arguments or numerous other meetings in order to file his reports for the 15.7-million-member convention.
When he arrived at his post in 1990, however, Strode’ s congressional credentials gave him access to press galleries of government entities and easy access to written testimony and various background materials issued to the media.
But when his credentials came up for renewal in 1995, the Standing Committee of Correspondents voted unanimously to reject his application. Michael Christensen, chairman of the committee which acts in behalf of Congress to authorize congressional credentials, explained in a letter to Strode that press gallery rules prohibit members from engaging in “ lobbying or paid advertising, publicity, promotion work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the federal government.” A specific concern of the committee, Christiansen said, was the responsibility Strode also had at the time as media coordinator for the Christian Life Commission (the forerunner to the SBC’ s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission).
At the same time, credentials were renewed for Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and other reporters working on behalf of religious organizations.
Once Strode’ s duties as media coordinator were transferred to another employee, he applied for renewal of his congressional press credentials in February of this year, thinking that the perceived lobbying conflict might disappear. However, the request was rejected in an April 13 letter from Keenan, deputy superintendent of the Senate Press Gallery.
“ The committee determined that because your organization is the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention and is funded by the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, it would not fall within the gallery’ s guidelines,” Keenan wrote.
Press credentials from Congress would make Strode’ s job easier, with better access to hearings and committee meetings. Without the credentials, he can’ t expect to be seated in the press gallery of the House or Senate. When written statements are distributed to assist the media in understanding a hearing, Strode sometimes has to wait until after the hearing to get a copy. And BP has to request seating in advance for oral arguments before the Supreme Court.
Strode’ s reporting from Washington on government actions related to moral, ethical and religious liberty issues is carried in numerous Baptist state papers and in Baptist Press on the Internet at www.sbc.net.
The Baptist Joint Committee uses the name of “ Baptist News Service” when releasing its reports and in its media listings. Associated Baptist Press distributes BNS articles to state Baptist papers.
The press gallery committee recently pulled the credentials of Baptist News Service. Keenan told Baptist Press the committee rejected credentials for the Baptist Joint Committee news service because, “ It’ s not editorially independent and supported by subscription and advertising.” The Baptist Joint Committee, as BNS’ owner, receives funding from various Baptist groups.
A Methodist-supported reporter will have her case reviewed if/when reapplication for credentials is sought. But a Catholic-run news service may be able to keep its credentials since it is funded by the local dioceses which use its releases. Similarly, Religious News Service has long been credentialed, with funding from payments by newspapers using its service. Even the Christian Science Monitor is editorially independent from the denomination which funds it, Keenan explained.
Keenan said a more “ perfect parallel” to the committee’ s refusing credentials to a BP reporter is in the way it has refused to credential Maturity News Service which is funded by the American Association of Retired Persons.
Reporters got together in the late 1800s to form a board to decide who would have access to the congressional press galleries, Keenan explained. The committee was authorized by Congress to give oversight to the job of granting press credentials. The group establishes its own rules and elects five secular reporters who are assisted by six staff members. “ The standing committee is fiercely independent about anyone telling it how to handle its rules,” Keenan said.
Herb Hollinger, vice president for convention news at the SBC Executive Committee, said Strode provides Baptist Press with “ highly professional and objective news stories of happenings in the nation’ s capitol of significance to Baptist readers.”
“ His insights, with a particular understanding of the concerns of Southern Baptists, have been of crucial importance to Southern Baptists in understanding the workings of their national government,” Hollinger said. “ Although Southern Baptists can read other news sources, Tom Strode’ s articles as Baptist Press bureau chief give Southern Baptists the kind of information which is critical for them in a participatory democracy.”
In any given week, Strode’ s assignments could address abortion, gambling, the homosexual movement’ s agenda and numerous other moral issues. “ There’ s an ethical and theological framework that Southern Baptists operate from on most of the issues that I’ m writing about,” Strode explained.
Baptist Messenger editor John Yeats of Oklahoma has found Strode to be “ a trustworthy source that we use and commend to our constituents here in Oklahoma.” He includes Strode’ s news reports in the state Baptist paper so readers can take the information and respond to their elected congressmen and senators.
Yeats said he views the refusal of the congressional committee to renew Strode’ s credentials as inhibiting a free press. “ What we get from the secular press is a religion of secularism. By inhibiting Tom Strode from receiving credentials, they’ re saying their religion of secularism rules Washington. There’ s a First Amendment right to that information,” Yeats insisted.
“ The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, U.S. News & World Report — those guys approach the issues and quote persons that Tom Strode would not quote,” Yeats said. “ He takes the issue and gives us insight from theologians, the medical community, scientists and other experts who share our biblical worldview. We’ re not going to get that from the secular press.”
Strode earned a bachelor’ s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and worked in the sports department of Arkansas Gazette eight years before pursuing a master of divinity degree at Mid-America Baptist Seminary, Memphis, Tenn. He also is a former staff member at Bellevue Baptist Church in suburban Memphis.
Although he attended a Southern Baptist church throughout his childhood in Poplar Bluff, Mo., it was not until a year after graduating from college that he accepted Jesus Christ as Savior. He left his newspaper job to attend Mid-America Seminary to follow a call to ministry.
Abortion and other life issues hold the greatest interest to Strode. He was 20 when the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its Roe v. Wade decision that opened the door to legal abortions. “ I remember seeing the headline and thinking that was wrong, even as a non-Christian,” Strode recalled. Within five years he began to be involved in the pro-life movement.
Occasionally Strode watches a sporting event and imagines what it would be like to cover it as a sportswriter for a newspaper. “ But what I’ m doing for Southern Baptists is a lot more interesting and more fulfilling. I’ m more at peace with what I’ m doing now.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter