In my time writing for WORLD magazine, one thing I have learned is that people don’t like being the subject of negative press coverage. This shouldn’t be a surprise, of course, but still it has been revealing to see how often coverage of controversy generates complaints from representatives of the person or ministry in question.
Were I to fall into some kind of public controversy myself, I am sure I would not like the coverage either. But, as Carl Trueman wrote recently at First Things, Christians need a free press for self-policing. We need people who will blow the whistle when a public figure or ministry won’t. Trueman’s reflections were prompted by recent controversies over accusations of plagiarism against Mark Driscoll, and over lawsuits by Ergun Caner (who was recently hired by Brewton-Parker College as its new president).
Trueman asks “Is journalism no longer considered a legitimate Christian calling? Or is the task of the Christian journalist simply to strengthen the hand of the vested interests? A free press is basic to the health of democratic culture in the civil sphere because it offers one line of public accountability for those in public office. Those who perform immediate public acts should expect to be subject to immediate public scrutiny. And what is true for the culture at large is also true for its various subcultures. A free Christian press is also important for the Christian subculture: it keeps leaders and organizations accountable.”
Amen, I say – Christians simply must self-police, ideally doing so in their own churches, organizations, and ministries. But sometimes situations will not change in the absence of outside pressure, and independent news organizations, like Christianity Today and WORLD, along with a multitude of bloggers, are often the best outlets for letting the sun shine. Again, it is easier to agree with the notion of a free press and accountability when you’re not the target. It is all too easy to slide into defensive recriminations against journalistic sunlight when the focus is on you.Trueman argues that we need “plenty of public voices and different groups presenting their different perspectives without the threat of being silenced by those with power and money. I need voices that criticize me and so does everyone else who operates in the public Christian sphere. Of course, I do not like being criticized; but it is necessary for the health of public life that it be so.” Yes indeed, and may all who have a public role as Christian leaders truly embrace that attitude when criticism or scrutiny actually comes against them.
Of course, self-policing can morph into scandal-mongering, and we must always be careful not to air (or re-tweet) substance-less allegations or innuendo. The more serious the charge, the more grave the decision about publicizing it. Some might be tempted to turn the destruction of a ministry or individual into a personal crusade. I would encourage anyone who engages in critical coverage on blogs, or in any news outlet, to be willing to assess your motivation. Sometimes the line can be quite fine between legitimate news and gossip. But just because you get a furious response over a blog post or article, from the person covered – or their “people” – does not mean it is wrong.
Similarly, as fans of writers and public figures, we need to give news writers and bloggers space to ask hard questions about even the people we love the most. Christians must maintain a balance between allowing a free press and blogosphere to do its much-needed work, and not fostering a religious culture of sensationalism or the rumor-driven destruction of honest people’s reputations.