NASHVILLE, Tenn. (ABP) — A founder of Associated Baptist Press recounted the organization’s history Oct. 21 as an effort to maintain a free press in Baptist life. Events in North Carolina earlier in the same day served as a reminder that freedom in Baptist journalism remains fragile.
At a banquet on the Belmont University campus in Nashville, Tenn., the independent Baptist news service’s board of directors honored Charles Overby and others responsible for ABP’s formation 20 years ago. Overby, a former Mississippi newspaper editor and now chairman and CEO of the Freedom Forum and Newseum, served as the chair of ABP’s first board of directors.
Earlier Oct. 21 in Charlotte, N.C., Norman Jameson resigned as editor of the Biblical Recorder, the journal of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Jameson had been under pressure from conservatives in the state body to report news in a fashion more favorable to the Southern Baptist Convention and conservative political causes.
One of Jameson’s predecessors at the Recorder, R.G. Puckett, was among the original group of Baptist state newspaper editors who backed ABP’s formation in 1990. Those editors were also honored, along with members of the group’s founding board of directors, at the banquet where Overby accepted ABP’s Founders Award.
“They say that newspapers are a daily miracle," Overby said in reviewing ABP's history. "If that’s true, then Associated Baptist Press is a 20-year miracle,” Overby said.
ABP was chartered in Nashville on July 17, 1990 — on the same day and in the same city in which the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee terminated Al Shackleford and Dan Martin as the top two editors of Baptist Press, the denomination’s official news service.
Overby described the firing as "the day the music died" in Baptist life, a reference to the 1971 Don McLean song “American Pie. “
“They were fired for reporting honestly about the raging controversy within the ranks of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Overby said.
Before that, Overby said, retired Baptist Press head W.C. Fields — who was in the audience at the banquet — worked tirelessly to make the service unique in denominational life as an in-house news agency that functioned more like a secular journalistic outlet than a public-relations service.
“Looking back on it, the wonder is not that Dan Martin and Al Shackleford were fired, but that Baptist Press was allowed to do what it did unfettered by Baptist hierarchies as long as it did,” Overby said. “Very few organizations are willing to pay employees to write objectively about their companies.”
But Overby said that kind of objectivity is necessary in Baptist life so that Christians can be informed about their world and their denominational organizations. “I believe that its work is every bit as important today as it was 20 years ago — perhaps more so," he said of ABP. "The divisions that existed 20 years ago really exist today."
Truth-finding, Overby said, is an essential part of Christian discipleship — and journalistic outfits like ABP are, therefore, a necessary part of Baptist life.
“Associated Baptist Press helps people find the truth in their everyday journey,” he said. “The freedom to pursue truth is embedded in the Bible. That freedom, from Adam and Eve on, can get us into trouble.”
Dan Lattimore, a dean at the University of Memphis and current chair of ABP’s board, said Overby’s willingness to lead the organization in its early years lent ABP immediate visibility and gravitas in the journalism world. Prior to his role at the Freedom Forum, Overby was editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize under his leadership.
“I’ll take this opportunity as a journalism professor to say that I think that, because of his national reputation in 1990 when we founded ABP, I think this really gave credibility to ABP right away,” Lattimore said. “That gave us instant credibility that we probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
David Wilkinson, ABP’s executive director, said that Overby and other ABP founders saw the agency through its infancy, and longtime Executive Editor Greg Warner saw the group through its childhood and adolescence.
“At 20 years of age, ABP stands proudly as a young adult — thankfully out of those teenage years, but a young adult full of promise and bursting with potential,” he said.
Rob Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press.
Related ABP stories:
ABP celebrates 20 years (7/19/2010)