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Friday, October 29, 2010

On the same day that directors and other friends of Associated Baptist Press commemorated the news service's 20th anniversary, a Baptist editor resigned his post amid threats to defund the newspaper he has served for three years.

On Oct. 21, the ABP staff, directors and other supporters gathered on the campus of Belmont University in Nashville to commemorate the efforts of Baptist state paper editors and others 20 years ago in the wake of the firings of Baptist Press editors Al Shackleford and Dan Martin by the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. A positive outcome of those alarming dismissals was the birth of an independent Baptist news service -- Associated Baptist Press.

Earlier on Oct. 21, long-time Baptist journalist Norman Jameson tendered his resignation as editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder in the face of (1) a threat to drop state convention funding of the newspaper with him at the helm and (2) lack of trustee support in resisting the effort.

Biblical Recorder trustees -- in a passive response to the defunding threat -- accepted the editor's offer to resign, effective Dec. 31. Board chair Bill Flowe praised Jameson and his work but added, "The perception that Mr. Jameson is not a good fit as editor with the current direction of the convention resulted in the painful decision to make a change."

The BP firings enabled the Executive Committee to effectively control SBC news. Letting the Biblical Recorder editor go may well have a similar effect in North Carolina, where Baptists find themselves bitterly divided.

The firings of Shackleford and Martin were as dramatic as they were anticipated as Executive Committee members gathered behind closed doors in a lengthy executive session at SBC headquarters in downtown Nashville and dismissed the two.

On the same day, Associated Baptist Press was formerly incorporated to do business in Tennessee. A 12-member board of directors was secured, and the number of "founding directors" was later expanded to 15. Organizers turned to Charles Overby, then chairman and CEO of the Gannett Foundation, now known as the Freedom Forum, to chair the fledgling news service's board.

Overby's acceptance of board leadership immediately lent credibility to ABP. Years earlier, in 1983, The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., of which Overby was editor, won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

At last week's banquet, Overby accepted ABP's Founders Award on the condition he would receive it on behalf of all those who played a part in getting ABP off the ground.

It was not until the morning after the banquet that the full ABP board, meeting in semi-annual session, learned of Jameson's resignation. The board unanimously authorized a statement that expressed dismay at Jameson's resignation as editor of "one of Baptists' historic and most respected newspapers."

"Ironically, this news came to us on the same day that the Board of Directors gathered with other friends of ABP to honor those Baptist state paper editors and founding board members who stepped forward 20 years ago to establish and lead ABP as a free and autonomous news service for Baptists and other Christians worldwide," the statement continued.

"As champions of truth and freedom, Baptists must be ever vigilant to guard the role of a free and unfettered press as an essential corollary to our historic Baptist principles of religious liberty, freedom of conscience and priesthood of the believer," it read.

The statement praised Jameson's work as "marked by the utmost integrity and the highest standards of journalistic excellence," singling out his principled leadership of the Recorder, his commitment to providing accurate and reliable information, and "his fair-minded and insightful editorials on matters of faith and current issues."

Jameson reportedly has been criticized of late for covering North Carolina Woman's Missionary Union, which is no longer recognized by the state convention but still is active in most churches, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Thorough coverage of Baptist life in a state where Baptists are deeply divided apparently didn't play well among some.

Until now, Biblical Recorder editors have been able to speak freely to and on behalf of North Carolina Baptists. Such independence may soon be hindered.

Jameson's detractors may well get what they want in the next editor only to discover too late that they have given up more than an outstanding editor.

The coincidence of the North Carolina resignation being tendered the same day supporters celebrated ABP's legacy should heighten awareness of the significance of both events and the implications of each on Baptist freedom and truth-telling.

Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way and since 2007 has been a member of the board of directors of ABP, one of Word&Way's New Voice Media partners.

 
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