July 11, 2019
To the editor:
I appreciated your selection of the quote from the late R. G. Puckett about freedom of the press published in your daily e-newsletter on July 4. Puckett was my best friend in Baptist journalism, and I miss him. He was never hesitant to speak out on the issues that matter, freedom of the press among them.
Freedom of the press is precious, yet it is illusory. You can have it and not know it until it is gone. The Baptist Standard, for which I worked for 23 years, 1976-98, as associate editor and then editor for the last three of those years, enjoyed freedom of the press – including freedom from pressure or control from state convention leadership – because the paper was not supported by Cooperative Program dollars. Never forget that those who pay the bills call the shots, especially if denominational leaders can’t handle the pressure or if the editor is spineless.
I worked for three editors – J. Marse Grant in North Carolina and John Jeter Hurt and Presnall Wood in Texas – before taking the editor’s seat. All three were supportive of convention leadership but were never hesitant about voicing a contrary or critical opinion. Their freedom to speak out on any issue was regularly lauded by convention leadership at the Standard’s annual banquet. Convention executives spoke glowingly of the editor’s freedom to express himself.
When Texas Baptists were in the throes of seeing a rival convention established, key meetings were held where Baptist General Convention of Texas leaders met with those who wanted another convention. The discussions about the pros and cons were of great importance to Texas Baptists, yet the Baptist Standard, with its ears attuned to consequential discussions and decisions, was kept out of the final meeting by executive fiat.
Freedom of the press for Texas Baptists died at that moment. Yes, we got the story that the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention would be formed, but we had to get it second-hand, when Texas Baptists deserved better. The positions and rationale of each person in those discussions should have been heard and reported.
In American religion, freedom of the press is often given lip service across the theological spectrum. In reality, that freedom is rare. It should be supported and never taken for granted, especially by those of us who claim the name Baptist.