The editor was in Germany so the phone call to The Christian Index office was forwarded to me (the managing editor at the time). It was an influential pastor and elected leader of the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) wanting to spend some of his influence.
He had a news tip for me regarding the upcoming GBC presidential election: the current GBC president was not running for a customary second term and another pastor had been tapped for the position by the inner circle.
He instructed me to put the story on the front page of the next issue along with a letter of endorsement he was sending. He wanted me to stand guard over the fax machine for the next several minutes as the secret, crucial information was transmitted.
Then he said I needed to be sure that no other candidate’s name would arise in print before the readers saw this planned nomination and endorsement.
I thanked him for sharing this information and affirmed it to be newsworthy. A story about the candidate’s nomination would go in the next issue, I said.
Then, I added, his letter to the editor would likely be placed in the appropriate section of the following issue since that section for the upcoming issue was full.
He became agitated that I was not responding to each demand with a hearty “Yes, sir.” I kindly explained that news (a candidate not running for a second term and another being nominated to take his place) is appropriate for the front page. The letter to the editor, however, was not. Neither would it be placed ahead of other letters.
His voice became more threatening telling me the convention owns the newspaper (as if I didn’t know that) and how much influence he had in the convention, and so on. He wanted me to know that he could get this done with my help or not.
It was the beginning of the end — or ends. For me, it was the first step toward voluntarily leaving the historic newspaper and 18 years of employment with the convention.
Fundamentalism has no regard for a free press. Shaping and controlling the information getting to the people is an important tool for fundamentalists. (That’s why bloggers drive them crazy; they can’t control them.)
Also, it was the beginning of the end for any semblance of editorial freedom and fairness of news coverage for the venerable publication. The gifted editor (who was criticized by one pastor for being “too fair”) was replaced by a loyal mouthpiece of the convention powerbrokers.
Now, a decade later and because of that earlier experience, I celebrate the editorial freedom granted to me by the Baptists Today Board of Directors, donors and subscribers.
They may disagree with my editorial positions or have different ideas about what topics deserve coverage. But our independence frees us from attempted intimidation or other efforts to control the flow of information to benefit one’s political agenda.
Texas Baptist leader David Currie (a Baptists Today director), in praising Baptist media with genuine editorial freedom, said in a recent commentary: “All of us need to remember and cherish how special it is to be a part of a free Baptist movement — and to have an independent news source that provides us with all of the news accurately, good and bad, gratifying and heart-breaking.”
Having seen the other side, I do cherish editorial freedom — and the responsibility that comes with it.