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Editors Under Fire

To say these are times that try editors’ souls is but a mild observation concerning Baptists today.

Baptist newspapers are being stripped of courageous editors. Some of them are still in our midst. You can tell the difference when you see it!

Once strong Baptist news services and bureaus are becoming propaganda mills.

Baptist magazines are turning into evangelistic tracts or program fact sheets with little regard for the context in which the religious community exists.

Denominational leaders hand editors their “do/don’t” lists, expecting unqualified obedience or else, and in effect the denominational leaders become de facto editors.

Every editor thus struggles with his/her integrity as a Christian journalist over against the reality of economic survival. Integrity most often carries a large price tag, and we realize none of us is perfect. Integrity is a personal struggle during which no one else can make the decisions.

Not only are readers deserting the secular and religious media for electronic news, thus placing circulations into a tailspin, but also a majority of the “gatekeepers” in the churches (mostly pastors) fear anything that might polarize church members.

Baptists are returning, in one sense to the 1950s, when I served as associate editor of the Texas Baptist Standard early in my career. [Baptists then were very conservative and repressive about news, but not fundamentalist. Today’s repression is more centralized and applied more widely and punitively–and is therefore more difficult for an editor.]

At the time, few professionally trained journalists graced Baptist publications. Instead, most editors were trained as pastors.

One pastor-turned-editor told a journalist friend, “The difference between pastors and journalists is that pastors want to smooth everything over and journalists want to stir things up.” That, of course, oversimplifies the roles.

Some pastors have turned into good editors, and some journalists have not. And good editors of any description, who have integrity, aren’t trying just to smooth things over or looking for headlines just to stir things up. They are seeking truth with which to inform Baptist readers.

But it’s sadly true that editors of that day all too often served their readers sermons and pap. And it’s sadly true that too many state executive directors, as well as state newspaper board members, would not support freedom of expression.

An editor from another state once asked then Baptist Standard editor E.S. James how he generated so many letters to the editor. [James, a Baptist statesman, was one of the early editors to change the face of Baptist journalism by reporting on important but controversial issues.]

When James told the inquiring editor that it came from informing readers on many of the current controversial issues, he replied, “If I did, I wouldn’t be around to get the letters.” [That editor later became a champion of informing Baptists truthfully.]

The denomination—then moving to become a national body—was strong and vigorous, but negatively the denomination, in the 1950s and the years to follow, was both very provincial and seriously prejudiced.

Later, it was apparent the churches and the denomination also suffered from the inhibiting disease of institutionalization, turned in upon itself. And all of these negative factors served to compound each other.

Today’s sins may be somewhat different, but they also will deliver a potent negativity unless reversed.

It’s no coincidence that Baptists exploded around the world at the same time their press found its voice and integrity.

But today, Baptists are creating a few mega-churches while refusing to honor the intelligence and maturity of the members by suppressing religious freedom and its corollary, press freedom. As the world moves into a global village, some Baptists are erecting tribal stockades where a few chiefs drum out their messages of control.

I agonize for every editor of any description who seeks, amidst today’s turmoil, to set readers free with the truth or at least a search for the truth.

In the midst of a very hostile dialogue recorded by John (8:32), Jesus told his disciples, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” But what a price they paid for that freedom.

Editorial freedom comes only when an editor realizes dismissal is not the worst thing that can happen.

Walker Knight, an elder statesman of Baptist journalism, lives in Decatur, Ga. He has been an award-winning editor and a role mode for integrity in journalism for over 50 years as associate editor of the Baptist Standard in Texas, editor of what was then Home Missions magazine and editorial director at the former SBC Home Mission Board (24 years) and as founding editor of what is now Baptists Today. This article appeared previously in the Mainstream Baptist Network Journal.