The Passing of W.C. Fields: Villain or Hero?

W.C. Fields, the Baptist journalist, has passed away. You probably don’t know who he is, but if you had much understanding of Baptist life from the 1960s through 1980s, you probably would. And if you’ve ever heard of the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, know that W.C. Fields was a major player in that controversy, albeit perhaps reluctantly. As both the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Press and their moderate competitors, Baptist News Global (formerly the Associated Baptist Press), run homages in his honor, anyone who cares about news reporting in Baptist life should ask the question whether W.C. Fields is a hero or villain.

First, the Baptist Press article about W.C. Fields’ passing was obligatory and minimal. It cited the facts surrounding Fields’ life and his three decades of service to the Southern Baptist Convention. It read like an obituary. The article is titled Fields’ a “public relations pioneer.” I found their minimalistic description of Fields to be delightful for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

The Baptist News Global article, as usual, provided more substantive and truthful reporting than the Baptist Press, and pointed out that Fields’ ultimate legacy is that he left the SBC under a cloud and embroiled in controversy, and helped to form a competing news service that aimed to be more impartial than that owned by the denomination.

That said, let me explain why I care about W.C. Fields and his legacy (even though few others do, and this post will have about 3 shares in social media).

Pulpit & Pen is the Baptist Press. In fact, we might swap that out as a heading on our news site just for kicks and grins. I started this news operation a number of years ago in order to expose various issues and controversies that were not being covered by my denomination at the time, the Southern Baptist Convention. The so-called “Baptist Press” only, as one friend of mine at Lousiana College put it, “pump sunshine.” Pulpit & Pen, which now dwarfs the SBC’s Baptist Press in readership, is actually a homage to independent reporting. Note, that I did not say that Pulpit & Pen is unbiased reporting. But it is independent.

Whether it was Louisiana College paying the president’s gay ex-assistant 35k to sign a gag order about what happened behind closed doors, Ergun Caner’s appointment to Brewton-Parker College and Johnny Hunt’s involvement in it, or Lifeway’s intentional mistreatment of a quadriplegic child in the pursuit to sell fake Heaven Tourism books, it was clear that a news source besides one that is owned and operated by the denomination would be necessary to get the word out about our denomination’s problems.

I developed an affection for the Associated Baptist Press, fueled by Fields’ vision of journalistic independence (now Baptist News Global) in spite of the fact that I am fundamentally opposed to their moderate (and progressive) ideologies that are often apparent in their reporting. My affection wasn’t due to their ideology, but due to their honesty. Frankly, the Baptist Press has none. I realized that, as counterintuitive as it seemed, the “liberal” news outlet in the Baptist world was far more honest than the “conservative” news outlet in the Baptist world because it was denominationally owned. And so when I found myself embroiled in my own controversy in 2014, I turned to Baptist News Global to report on the issue, and not the denominational press who I couldn’t count on giving a fair or honest recitation of the facts.

I chuckled at the Baptist Press’ minimalist characterization of Fields as a “Public Relations Pioneer” – even though he was indeed the chief “public relations officer” of the SBC for a number years – because that’s a funny way to describe a newsman. But that’s essentially what the Baptist Press is…it’s public relations. It’s not journalism.

If the truth were really told by the Baptist Press, they would acknowledge their view of Fields as a villain. Fields, you see, was not a fan of the Conservative Resurgence.

Speaking of the movement, Fields called the resurgence a “tragedy,” and said it was a matter of “dissension, discord, disagreement, disruptions, disputations and divisions.”

He went on to add, “Never in our history has the devil won such a clear and sweeping victory by an unrelenting, shameless takeover by a narrowly partisan political group thinly disguised now and then by pious phraseology.”

As a conservative, Fields isn’t a villain, per se, but he’s not a hero. He was one of the heads taken on a platter by Patterson, Pressler, and the other architects of the resurgence.

But, as a journalist, Fields left a legacy of honesty and independence. He refused to do the bidding of whatever forces happened to be momentarily in control of denominational entities. He reported and reported truthfully. And that’s heroic in my book.

It may be odd that I – on one hand – admire Fields while disagreeing with him so strongly on the importance of Inerrancy. But the reason for this is that I can live with honest liberals. It’s hard to live with dishonest conservatives. And frankly, there were lots and lots of dishonest conservatives that came to power in the days of the Conservative Resurgence (and this is coming from a fire-breathing conservative). Like with my own news organization, I don’t believe Fields was always impartial, but he was honest and independent.

The truth is, no news source is truly impartial. All have biases of one kind or another to one degree or another. Impartiality is a pipe dream, but independence is everything.

Fields wrote about this in his incredibly brave article, SBC Journalism: Besieged! His toleration for bad theology aside, Fields was right…Southern Baptist journalism had been besieged. The same forces that wanted to ouster Fields from the Baptist Press because of his bias, then took it over when they won control and became equally as biased.

Fields learned the lesson that journalism has to be independent, and said so.

And he was right.

[Contributed by JD Hall]


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