Hey First Baptist Dallas: Your pastor's a real dolt, but your church isn't all that terrible, paper says

Screen Shot 2018-07-30 at 4.08.57 PM.png

The Dallas Morning News is no fan of Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas.

Or to be more precise, the newspaper's Metro columnists are no fans of Jeffress, the Southern Baptist megachurch leader best known as one of President Donald Trump's key evangelical defenders.

But given that the paper tends to cover Jeffress in the form of opinionated columns, it's frequently difficult to make much distinction between the paper itself and its columnists.

For those interested in impartial news coverage, that's a problem. We at GetReligion, of course, advocate for clearly marking news and opinion content so that readers know which is which. The Dallas Morning News does a reasonable job of that, running columnists' photos with their pieces as opposed to using normal bylines.

However, what if all the coverage a paper ever provides about a key public figure comes in the form of opinion — the kind of opinion (read: metro column) run on news pages beside regular news stories? In that case, couldn't a reader reasonably ask if the paper really offers impartial coverage of that person? I'll explain more in a moment.

First, some key background: In 2016, we noted it here at GetReligion when Dallas Morning News columnist Robert Wilonksy declared that "Robert Jeffress belongs in Dallas' past, not our future." At the same time, Wilonsky was doing regular news reporting on Jeffress, which seemed to be a conflict. Later that same year, we pointed it out when the Dallas paper couldn't even get the books of the Bible right when quoting Jeffress.

Now, First Baptist Dallas is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Given what a major player Jeffress and that church have become on the national stage, one might expect coverage by the Dallas paper. And indeed, the paper had a big piece on its Metro section cover. But it wasn't a news story. It was a column by Sharon Grigsby.

In fact, it was the most positive story I've read about First Baptist in the Dallas Morning News (feel free to send me links if I've missed something).

The headline sings the church's praises:

The light still shines from First Baptist Dallas

But the subhead makes it clear the writer doesn't like Jeffress' brand of politics:

Church's value speaks louder than pastor's political clamor

The columnist's lede:

There’s the heart of a small town beating in the center of the city.

First Baptist Dallas, which turns 150 years old Sunday, spreads over five blocks of downtown and boasts a membership of more than 13,000.

It’s a place both important and misunderstood in our city. If you talk to the people of First Baptist, you will find them welcoming, uncontroversial and possessed of all the connectedness prescribed by Jesus in Mark 12:31: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The people in the pews maintain this small town even when the church itself is lost in the long shadow of its pastor, Robert Jeffress.

He’s known nationally not as the guy who talks lovingly about Christ but who talks favorably about President Donald Trump.

But First Baptist’s members — at least those willing to talk — pay little heed to the noise around Jeffress and his latest provocative statements. On Sunday, politics aren’t their preacher’s message, the Bible is. That’s why they drive from all over North Texas to fill the massive worship center and historic sanctuary.

Plenty of people disagree passionately with many of the stances that Jeffress and, by extension, his congregation take on social issues.

Those of us who don’t believe homosexuality is a sin can’t fathom worshipping there. The same goes for those of us who embrace the richness of diverse faiths.

So it’s understandably difficult for those outside the church to separate the wheat from Jeffress’ political chaff.

The writer's basic message is that Jeffress is a real dolt, but his church isn't all that terrible. 

It's certainly a columnist's prerogative to take that position. But I found myself lamenting the lack of an actual news story with key voices discussing some of the issues raised — and doing so in a more fair and evenhanded manner than casting Jeffress as a villain. 

I did notice that the Dallas Morning News had a news story on the anniversary in today's edition (the Monday paper). But it's much shorter and buried inside the Metro section as opposed to splashed across the cover.

Is it just the columnists who are no fans of Jeffress? Or is it the paper itself? Should the thousands of First Baptist Dallas members be content with their most important local news source offering most of its coverage via opinion columnists vs. impartial news reporters? What does this approach say about the state of journalism today? 

I'd welcome your thoughts, kind readers, to all of those questions. Please comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.


Please respect our Commenting Policy