Plagiarism, the Press and Moral Misdirection

Got a problem? Blame the press. Facing a crisis? Finger the media. Caught in a moral crunch? Claim reporters suffer from blindness, meanness or anti-religious bigotry.

In every situation of scrutiny and criticism, always point away from the organization and toward the flawed nature of the press.


So goes the public relations strategy of organizations and the defensive approach of individuals.


When fundamentalist preacher Jerry Vines made hateful comments about Islam, a Southern Baptist Convention agency head said the secular press "writes the leads," implying that the problem was the press, not Vines. The press focused on minor comments, not major convention events, he said.


A similar defensive twist was made when a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leader was caught plagiarizing a sermon. A Texas pastor said the critics of plagiarism missed the real story of the CBF meeting. He said, "No reporter from Baptist Press could have sat through these sessions and found anything to criticize."


In a press release about this episode, Baptist Women in Ministry said, "While we do not endorse or in any way support the practice of plagiarism, we were disheartened to hear of the accusation brought against Reba Cobb by Baptist Press" (emphasis added). The release also said that BP "has for some time ruthlessly targeted Baptist Women in Ministry."


Whether the case was the SBC or CBF, the press was not the problem. The problem was the problem.


Few would argue that the press is perfect. Indeed, the news media make plenty of mistakes of fact and interpretation. Reporters have agendas, even ideological biases. Some reporters are theological inquisitors. Some journalists are sloppy and slothful.     


Most thoughtful folk would acknowledge that the press is not demonic, however. Yet much of the perception within the religious community about the press is too suspicious; and some religious leaders are downright paranoid about the press. Either perspective hurts the integrity of the religious community and limits the opportunity for people of faith to show integrity.


What we need is a healthier appreciation for the news media. One place to begin is with some reflection on the patterns of blaming the press.


In some cases, blaming the press is a knee-jerk reaction. When negative news catches us off guard, we respond with a reptilian defensiveness that denies the accuracy of the information. It is instinctively easier to criticize the messenger than to deal with the message.


In other cases, blaming the press is a deliberate deflection away from potentially harmful truth to protect institutions or organizational leaders. It's a strategy of avoidance which some corporate CEOs and politicians practice daily as they zigzag around honesty and integrity.


Neither approach is particularly helpful. The former discloses our lack of calm discernment. The latter reflects moral misdirection, a cousin of dishonesty.


Why leaders of faith hold such negative views of the press is a tough question. Some leaders and organizations believe they are beyond human accountability, giving evidence of spiritual pride. These folk think they can do or say anything without experiencing unpleasant consequences. Others refuse to trust the public, wanting to control opinion and spin information. These folk simply lack the courage to have the truth aired. Still others are averse to accepting responsibility, preferring to blame others, including the press. These folk demonstrate a type of sloth.


Centrist Baptists have claimed that we are the people of integrity. But talking and walking the claim are two different creatures. When we mess up, we need to 'fess up. We 'fess up best with plain speech, not crafted statements of redirection.


We have and will make plenty of mistakes. When we disclose moral flaws and issue egregious statements, let's not blame the press. Let's tell the truth and trust the people.


Through the years, Baptist journalists C. R. Daley, W. C. Fields, Walker Knight, Dan Martin, Jack Brymer, Al Shackleford, Toby Druin, Marv Knox and Mike Clingenpeel have tried to teach this truth in word and deed.


Let's learn from our mistakes and stop hating the press.


Robert Parham is BCE's executive director.

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