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TV Station Stands by Report of Baptist/Beer Brouhaha

A Florida TV station is standing by reports that a Southern Baptist disaster-relief team refused to hand out canned water donated by Anheuser-Busch to hurricane victims, despite claims of misrepresentation and misinformation in Baptist media.

Last week media in Clewiston, Fla., reported that Southern Baptist volunteers from Alabama running a relief station for victims of Hurricane Wilma refused to hand out drinking water donated by the St. Louis-based beer company to people in need.

EthicsDaily.com reported the story, as did several Web logs. This week Keith Hinson, a public relations associate for the Alabama Baptist Convention State Board of Missions, sent out an e-mail denying that Baptist volunteers deprived anyone of water.

“It is an absolute falsehood to suggest–as many irresponsible bloggers have–that the Baptist volunteers withheld the basic needs of life from Floridians impacted by the hurricane,” Hinson said. “Contrary to misinterpretations of news reports, no one was denied access to water.

Contacted by EthicsDaily.com, Darrel Adams, executive editor and news director of WBBH NBC-2 and WZVN ABC-7 in Naples/Fort Myers Beach, Fla., said the station stands by its original story.

“We stand by the facts reported in our story and witnessed by more than one reporter,” Adams said. “No water was being given to the people in line until an alternative to the Anheuser-Busch product arrived.”

In an e-mail complaint to the television reporter, Hinson said from her tone, he believed reporter Danielle Pepe “did not intend any kind of anti-Baptist or anti-religious bias for the story.”

Instead he blamed an “inflammatory headline” and omission of “the fact that there was no disruption in supplying water to the public” for “a virtual wildfire among bloggers around the U.S.”

But Hinson told EthicsDaily.com on Friday he viewed the report as “journalistically sloppy” and “in direct conflict with what many others who were present have reported.”

“The TV station is welcome to stand by their story, though I don’t plan to challenge them further on the accuracy of their account,” Hinson said. “I have expressed my concerns to them, and they listened.”

Hinson referred other questions about whether he believed relief workers acted properly to a news story on the Alabama Baptist Web site.

Headlined, “Southern Baptist, Anheuser-Busch water controversy misrepresented,” the story began:

“No thirsty person went without water, and no water went to waste, according to Tim Bridges, pastor of First Baptist Church, Clewiston, Fla.

“This fact is despite Clewiston-area media reports that claimed differently when a shipment of water, distributed by Anheuser-Busch, caused confusion Oct. 28. This fact also remains in spite of the growing number of Web bloggers distributing inaccurate information following the initial news reports.”

The story went on to say that Southern Baptist relief workers were there to cook and serve meals. Bottles of water are handed out if they are available but are not guaranteed, said Alabama Baptist volunteer Vernon Lee.

Bridges, the Clewiston pastor, said the Anheuser-Busch logo on the cans was “huge,” and all he said was members of his church would not be the ones to hand them out. He said church volunteers were handing out water supplied by Southern Baptists “hand over fist,” and that a FEMA site set up at a Wal-Mart across the street was handing out water as well.

“I would have no problem giving the people water” donated by Anheuser-Busch, Lee said, “if they were thirsty, but they were not thirsty.”

Both Lee and Bridges said no one went without water and called it unfortunate that local media misunderstood the facts.

To clarify “inaccurate” reports, the paper quoted Bridges: “There was plenty of water available. No one was turned away.”

But that isn’t what the volunteers said when approached by television news crews last Thursday and Friday. Southern Baptist volunteers at first declined to be interviewed on the air. Later, instead of explaining their position, a volunteer berated a reporter for raising the issue.

A video of Friday’s report is posted on the NBC-2.com Web site.

In it, reporter Danielle Pepe began: “Hurricane Wilma victims line up for miles to receive food and water. Here in Clewiston, they’re also leaving with prayers. This Southern Baptist group from Alabama traveled far to help out. But Thursday CBS-2 discovered there was something they were not quick to give away.”

“The pastor didn’t want to hand out the Budweiser cans to people,” the report continued, cutting to a video of SBC volunteer John Cook. “And that’s his prerogative. I back him a hundred percent.”

“Twenty-two pallets of canned water, bearing the seal of the distributor Anheuser-Busch, a beer company,” Pepe continued. (The cans were not labeled “Budweiser,” as Cook implied. Video clips also featured prominently the feeding station banner identifying Alabama Baptist Convention Disaster Relief.)

“The Baptist group felt it was inappropriate to give this donation out, and it wasn’t too happy the media got a hold of the story.”

“Why do you want to make that be the issue?” Cook protested. “That’s not an issue. The issue is, you know, here’s where the food is. We’re here to help people.”

“No one disagrees with that,” the reporter continued, “but the Red Cross says Anheuser-Busch is also trying to help.”

“All along, people have been able to take the water, but this group set it aside, and few knew it was available. The Baptist group is standing by what they told us yesterday. But the Red Cross says water is water. So now they’re handing this water out.”

Following a quote by a spokesman from Anheuser-Busch, the report winds down with a comment from storm victim Lisa Simmons, pictured with cases of the Anheuser-Busch water sitting beside her in the front seat of her car.

“Well I don’t think it makes a difference at all who gives it out,” Simmons said. “It’s going to a good cause, and it’s to help everybody.”

“And many victims are grateful Anheuser-Busch is stepping in to help,” the story concluded.

The Alabama Baptist article, dated in the Nov. 10 issue, appeared Thursday on Baptist Press.

It also was picked up by Al.com, an interactive Web site developed in cooperation with three Alabama newspapers: The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and Mobile Register.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaiy.com.

Previous related story:
Southern Baptists Deny Water Donated by Beer Company to Hurricane Victims