I have a fair amount of experience reporting on the Southern Baptist Convention, going back two decades when I served as religion editor for The Oklahoman and traveled to the denomination’s annual meetings.
In my time with The Associated Press in Dallas, I did a 2004 series on the 25th anniversary of the 1979 conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Last year, freelancing for the Washington Post, I covered an all-night meeting at which Paige Patterson was removed as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
But I’ll acknowledge that I’m no expert on the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. For example, I don’t have a clear idea of whether the Southern Baptist Convention’s president — an elected role generally filled by a pastor — is a more powerful, substantial position than serving as president of one of the denomination’s six regional seminaries. It seems to me that perhaps the seminary presidents are bigger, more major players in the long term.
The reason I bring this up is that the ongoing news coverage of the SBC’s sex abuse scandal — in which Patterson keeps making all the wrong kind of headlines — typically cites Patterson’s past SBC presidency before mentioning his tenure as seminary president.
In fact, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — which should be as informed on this story as anyone — seems somewhat confused about which role Patterson was kicked out of last year.
Here’s the lede of the Star-Telegram’s report on a lawsuit (warning: the details are chilling) filed last week:
A woman who said she was threatened and humiliated after reporting multiple rapes to former Southern Baptist Convention president Paige Patterson has filed a lawsuit against him.
The lawsuit, which was filed by a former student of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminaryin Fort Worth, was unsealed this week.
It says the woman was the victim of multiple violent sexual assaults on the school’s campus by a fellow student, who also was employed at the seminary, in 2014 and 2015. But even before she became a student, the lawsuit says, the seminary “was not a safe place for young women.”
But here’s the deal: Patterson was president of the SBC in 1999 and 2000. That was 20 years ago.
Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the lede to refer to his time as president of the Fort Worth seminary from 2003 until his firing in 2018?
Of course, part of the problem seems to be that the Star-Telegram has used the phrase “former SBC president” so often that it has decided that’s what Patterson was until last year’s controversy. Here is a sentence later in the story:
Patterson was removed as the SBC president last year because of how he handled sex abuse claims, including an email in which he reportedly asked to meet with a student to “break her down” after she said she was raped.
Nope. That’s not correct.
That inaccuracy, of course, does nothing to diminish the shocking nature of the allegations against Patterson. But getting the nitty-gritty details precisely accurate probably would help the local newspaper’s credibility.
Also, it might be helpful for the paper to consider the question I raised: Is SBC president really the bigger, more powerful post? Or would that be the one in which Patterson served as seminary president for 15 years and seemingly ruled with impunity?
I know GetReligion has highly informed Southern Baptist readers who perhaps could offer additional insight or even explain to me why I’ve got matters entirely wrong (wouldn’t be the first time I was accused of that).
By all means, comment below. But please remember that we are focused on journalism and media coverage questions, not on readers’ opinions about Patterson and/or Southern Baptists.