By Bob Allen
Bill Moyers — raised Southern Baptist but best known for his career as a broadcast journalist and political commentator on PBS — had only a brief skirmish in the Southern Baptist Convention battle over biblical inerrancy that divided the nation’s largest Protestant denomination in the 1980s and 1990s, but it left a mark that changed the way Baptists get their news.
Moyers, 80, was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1954 and earned a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1959. He worked both as a pastor and director of information at the SBC seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, before joining the staff of the newly created Peace Corps during the Kennedy administration.
After JFK’s assassination, Moyers became a special assistant to President Johnson, serving as LBJ’s press secretary between July 1965 and February 1967. Post-politics Moyers served as publisher for Newsday in Long Island, N.Y., before switching to broadcast journalism with the launch of “Bill Moyers’ Journal” on PBS in 1971.
He moved to CBS News in the mid-1970s before forming Public Affairs Television with his wife, Judith Davidson Moyers, in 1986. He returned to public broadcasting with in-depth programs including the beloved “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth,” which aired in 1988.
In 1987 Moyers produced a three-part documentary titled “God in Politics,” exploring growing political involvement among evangelical Christians. The second installment, “The Battle for the Bible,” examined the struggle over biblical inerrancy within the Southern Baptist Convention. (Moyers credited his own education in faith and democracy to growing up in a Southern Baptist church in Marshall, Texas.)
Southern Baptists interviewed by Moyers included Paul Pressler, a Houston judge and architect of the “conservative resurgence” movement launched in 1979 ostensibly to halt the SBC’s drift toward liberalism. Pressler became visibly agitated when Moyers pressed him on questions about his role in secular politics, reportedly ending the interview by tearing off his microphone and storming off the set.
Pressler took his grievance to the SBC Executive Committee, a group he joined in 1984. At the February Executive Committee meeting in 1989, Pressler introduced a resolution protesting “the use of federal tax dollars to support one faction in the Southern Baptist Convention controversy through the use of the Public Broadcasting System.”
The resolution, approved by a vote of 40-14, accused Moyers of bias and questioned the timing of an airing in North Carolina just before the 1988 SBC annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas. (PBS officials said it was a local decision. The decision to air the program was made mid-summer 1987 and it was sent to member stations in December 1987 and redistributed the following August.)
Pressler told fellow Executive Committee members that Moyers’ people had manipulated the interview by filming him face-on answering questions. After he left, Pressler said, they then turned the camera on Moyers, who asked similar questions, though nuanced in slightly different ways.
“Brothers, it is not fair to have a television program that then changes the questions that are asked of the person and you appear like you were answering questions that were never asked,” Pressler argued at the Feb. 20-22, 1989, Executive Committee meeting in Nashville, Tenn.
Moyers explained that recording interviews with a single camera was a common practice, and in his face shots he simply read the questions as they were jotted down by a producer. The only reason Pressler wasn’t there, Moyers said, was because he left in a huff, something that was captured on the film but not used in the final edit.
Moyers sent Pressler a telegram, copied to Executive Committee chairman Charles Sullivan, referring to “spurious accusations” made against him and requesting that both men appear at the Executive Committee meeting in June 1989 to “compare notes, take questions and discuss these matters in a Christian manner.”
Sullivan, pastor of First Baptist Church in Lenoir City, Tenn., turned down the request, citing the restricted time frame of a meeting compressed between sessions of the 1989 SBC annual meeting in Las Vegas. Sullivan said he would let the full body decide whether to extend an invitation to Moyers at the September meeting in Nashville.
“We have to be very careful about opening the Executive Committee meetings to any and everyone wanting to appear,” Sullivan told Baptist Press. “We have a lot of people making requests, and we do not have time to hear all of them. We have to be very careful about who we invite. I will present his request to them in June, and they will consider whether they want to hear him.”
Learning his request was rejected, Moyers responded succinctly to Sullivan’s alternative in a fax sent Sunday night, June 11, 1989: “Forget it.”
“When you and Pressler would not allow me to present my case this week at your meeting in Las Vegas and when Pressler refused my offer of free time on PBS to discuss the issue following the repeat in May of the documentary, I realized that I am up against a situation most un-Baptist: closed minds, and in the parlance of your host city, a stacked deck,” Moyers said.
“There is no way to get a fair hearing from an Executive Committee that has become a rubber stamp for a secular politician who has infected this Christian fellowship with the partisan tactics of malice, manipulation and untruth. Under his thumb, you do only his will. I want no part of it.”
Sullivan considered the letter private, but Moyers provided a copy to Baptist Press, the SBC news service under purview of the 9 9 Executive Committee. Pressler said he didn’t want the text of the message reported.
During a Monday morning meeting of the Executive Committee on June 12, the administrative subcommittee voted to “respectfully request that Baptist Press only report that Moyers had withdrawn his request to appear.”
Later in the plenary session, Executive Committee member James Wideman, who made the original motion, changed it to read that “the Executive Committee report to Baptist Press that Bill Moyers has withdrawn his request to appear before the Executive Committee and the Executive Committee has acknowledged that request.”
Wideman, pastor of Screven Memorial Baptist Church in Portsmouth, N.H., said he realized the motion he made in the subcommittee amounted to instructing Baptist Press what and what not to report. He said he changed the wording “because I have confidence that Baptist Press will do nothing to inflame the issue.”
Baptist Press director Al Shackleford said he wanted any news coverage of the exchange to be fair and balanced, including both Moyers’ reason for withdrawing his request and offering the Executive Committee and Pressler opportunity to respond.
Moyers described the Baptist Press story dated June 13, 1989, as a “straightforward and accurate account of the dispute.”
Pressler, by now an Executive Committee officer, was incensed when the story was released to media covering the convention meeting. Previously critical of what he perceived as anti-conservative bias in Baptist Press, Pressler confronted News Editor Dan Martin, demanding an explanation.
“I did what I had to do,” a bystander in the SBC newsroom recalled Martin saying. Pressler retorted, “Then I’ll do what I have to do.”
A year later at the 1990 SBC annual meeting in New Orleans, Executive Committee officers met privately, instructing Executive Director Harold Bennett to request resignations from both Martin and Shackleford in order to avoid an “unpleasant confrontation” over a motion for their firing anticipated in the upcoming plenary session.
Bennett put off informing the men until they returned to Nashville, reportedly advising them to “resign quietly” with severance benefits or be “dealt with harshly” if they resisted. After neither responded to Bennett’s request, the Executive Committee convened a special meeting July 17, 1990, where members voted 45-15 to terminate the two journalists effective immediately, with salary and benefits to continue for seven months.
“We were fired because they want to have their own minister of information,” Martin said after the meeting, “a spin doctor who’ll put the spin on stories that they want.”
Martin and Shackleford requested an open meeting, but the Executive Committee officers opted for an executive session, saying they didn’t want to turn a personnel discussion into a public trial. Onlookers crowded the hallway outside the meeting room, watched by armed off-duty Nashville police officers brought in for security due to worries about crowd control and rumors of protest.
At a press conference following the vote, Jeff Mobley, a Nashville attorney, announced he had just filed incorporating papers with the Tennessee secretary of state creating a news service called Associated Baptist Press.
Mobley said the news service, endorsed by the Southern Baptist Press Association, would be aligned with no political group.
“Its goal will be to provide a source of information which will be guided by the highest tenet of professional journalism and the standard of Christian ethics,” he said. “ABP will be neither the servant nor savior of any group among Southern Baptists. A guiding principle for ABP will be to tell Southern Baptists the facts and to trust them with those facts. ABP will not serve as a ‘press agent’ of any political group or groups among Southern Baptists.”
At first editors used ABP to supplement coverage by Baptist Press. A new audience emerged after formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1991 — readers less interested about inner workings of SBC politics and more in the development of the new CBF and partner ministries arising from ashes of the controversy.
Political pressures on state paper editors, declining circulation of denominational publications and new technologies fueled a shift in the 2000s from a “wholesale” philosophy of a news service for printed newspapers toward a “retail” model of delivering news directly to readers on the Internet.
In 2006 ABP joined forces with the Baptist Standard in Texas, Religious Herald in Virginia and Missouri’s Word and Way to create a content-sharing platform called New Voice Media. The relationship evolved into talks that led to the merger of ABP and the Religious Herald, rebranded Baptist News Global, in 2014.