Two weeks have lapsed since Hannah Kate Williams filed a sweeping lawsuit against the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, two other SBC entities and eight individuals affiliated with the SBC — but the SBC’s news service, Baptist Press, has yet to acknowledge the litigation.
That shouldn’t be surprising, given the history of Baptist Press at the center of the so-called “conservative resurgence” 30 years ago. The firing of BP’s two editors, Al Shackleford and Dan Martin, in 1990 led to the formation of Associated Baptist Press, which today is Baptist News Global.
Paul Pressler, one of the two architects of the plan to turn the SBC in a decidedly more conservative direction, had been a relentless critic of BP’s coverage of the denomination’s internal controversy. He believed his secret meetings, stealth tactics and loose association with the truth had been unfairly portrayed in BP’s coverage. All he wanted, he said, was “balance.”
That was a ruse then, and it’s a ruse now.
What Pressler wanted was for his crusade to be portrayed in a positive light. His idea of “balance” was for his views to be presented as mainstream, without question.
That desire echoed a national yearning of many political and religious conservatives at the time, who saw in mainstream media daily challenges to their belief systems. What they so desperately wanted — and believed — to be true was not being reported on network news or in the New York Times as true.
If you’re old enough, think back to that time 30 years ago when cable news was just beginning and when social media and the internet did not exist. It was much harder for partisans to propagate their agendas, since they didn’t have access to a mass audience and since respectable news outlets vetted content for facts and did not want to be found liable for publishing lies.
No single event has changed the course of this debate more than the creation of Fox News in 1996. The same ideology that drove Pressler’s need to take over Baptist Press drove Roger Ailes and his allies to create an alternative news network to CNN and the rest of the mainstream media.
William Falk, writing in The Week in 2019, observed: “If Fox News had a DNA test, it would trace its origins to the Nixon administration. In 1970, political consultant Roger Ailes and other Nixon aides came up with a plan to create a new TV network that would circumvent existing media and provide ‘pro-administration’ coverage to millions.”
It took another 26 years for that dream to become a reality, but when it did, the battle for truth got a lot more difficult. Under the pretense of being another mainstream media outlet, Fox News began to serve its audience the messages they wanted to hear. And for true believers, Fox News became the constant soundtrack to their lives, often playing in the background all day.
(As a side note, some would argue that by staking out its place on the rightward side of cable news, Fox drove some other outlets, namely CNN and MSNBC, more to the left due to market segmentation.)
The way Fox News shapes the news is not only by its nuancing of what it does report but also by what it doesn’t report. Multiple academic studies have documented the “Fox News effect” of passing off biased or incomplete information as fact and downplaying inconvenient news.
As we now know due to the coronavirus pandemic, this pattern not only shapes elections but has deadly consequences. Fox News has become a haven for anti-science, anti-reality conspiracy theories about COVID-19, masks and vaccines. Coverage by Fox News and other far-right media sources has been documented to have made the pandemic worse in the United States than in other countries.
“Coverage by Fox News and other far-right media sources has been documented to have made the pandemic worse in the United States than in other countries.”
Of course, the success of Fox News — and now its further-right, even more biased offspring — vaulted into hyperdrive by Donald Trump, who has perpetually built himself up by lambasting the mainstream media that dared to point out that he is a fraud, a conman, a liar, a thief and a tax cheat.
Trump claims to have invented the term “fake news,” and as president he famously declared the mainstream media to be an “enemy of the people.”
In a Washington Post article tracing the path of Trump’s war on the media, Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, offered this interpretation: “I don’t think it’s good for democracy that we’re branding an entire industry as an enemy. But is it effective? I think so. I’m not saying it’s right.”
The damning results of this strategy show up in new polling by Pew Research, which finds that Republicans are less likely to trust their main news source if they see it as “mainstream” — even if their prime news source is Fox News and they believe Fox News is mainstream.
This reinforces a Pew study from 2020, which found that “Republicans, and especially strong Trump supporters, consistently express more negative sentiments about the news media.”
What we have experienced in America over the last 30 years — accelerated recently by Trumpism — is a willful denial of reality that has undercut trust in fact-based news reporting. Just like Pressler wanting the denominational news service to tell stories the way he wanted them reported, so a vast number of Americans have wanted to hear “news” that doesn’t challenge their comfortable beliefs.
“This denial of reality does not change reality, only the perception of it.”
This denial of reality does not change reality, only the perception of it. Climate change is still real, and the planet is warming dangerously due to man-made excesses. Racism is real, and real people continue to suffer by our denial of the systemic nature of it. Economic advantage and disadvantage are real, and attempting to convince hourly workers that it’s in their best interest to make the rich richer still doesn’t keep their families sheltered and fed.
And perhaps most deadly of all, COVID-19 is real whether Tucker Carlson believes it or not, and masks and vaccines work wonders, whether Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott believe it or not. Changing the channel to a news source that makes you feel better may not be good for your health.
The effects of this unhealthy perception of reality spill over into many other areas of life, including schools, local government and churches. Misinformed parents, filled with scare tactics picked up from Fox News and other sources, are storming school board meetings protesting mask mandates and vaccines — while also insisting that their precious children shouldn’t be exposed to the truth about America’s racial history.
And pastors, God bless them, are contending mightily to hold congregations together when people who sit on the same pew get their news from such vastly different sources that they can’t agree on the very definition of what’s true.
Thus, I found it ironic this week that while Baptist Press has yet to report on the litigation filed against the very agency in which it is housed, there was a story about the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary beginning the new semester with a call to speak truth.
“Truth fears no light,” Adam Greenway told the students in his charge. Amen, President Greenway.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.
Where do you go for news you can trust? | Analysis by Ella Wall Prichard