April 28, 2003

Baptist Press disavows reporter
after flap with education secretary

___By Robert Marus
___ABP Washington Bureau
___WASHINGTON (ABP)--The Southern Baptist Convention's news service has fired one of its contributing writers over his handling of a story that made national headlines.
___On April 11, Baptist Press announced it no longer would use articles authored by Todd Starnes because of "factual and contextual errors" in an April 7 Baptist Press story appearing under his byline.
___The story was a profile of U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige. Some of the things Starnes quoted Paige as saying caused several church-state watchdogs and public-school advocates in Washington to call for Paige's resignation.
___According to Starnes' story, Paige said that he "would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith." Baptist Press also reported Paige considered "the animosity to God in public school settings" as "puzzling," and characterized him as comparing the diversity of thought and belief found in public-school settings disfavorably with the strong values taught in religious schools.
___Paige is a member of Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, where he serves as a deacon. The predominantly African-American congregation is affiliated with the SBC and the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
___Starnes is director of university communications at the Baptist-related Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and a former assistant editor at Baptist Press. The news agency released the story April 8. The Washington Post ran a story on Paige's comments April 9, and other national news organizations began reporting on it soon after.
___Several public-school advocacy and civil-rights groups attacked Paige's reported comments, including the American Federation of Teachers and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
___Some members of Congress also called on Paige to apologize for his remarks or resign. A group of 12 House members, led by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., sent Paige a letter April 10. "No one is suggesting that parents should not have the right to send their children to a religious school of their own choosing," the letter said. "What is troubling is that the government's top education official would appear to prefer educational institutions that are reserved to one denomination and who views the presence of children with different religious beliefs as detrimental to a sound education."
___Paige attempted to clarify his remarks in a press conference April 9. "I understand completely and respect the separation of church and state," Paige said, adding that his preference for schools with Christian values was only a personal choice and had nothing to do with his job as the nation's top public-education official. He also emphasized that he was talking about institutions of higher learning, not elementary or secondary schools.
___Although Paige's spokesman initially described Starnes' quotations as "accurate," according to the Washington Post's April 9 story, on April 10 Paige aides issued reporters what they said was a more accurate quotation, based on a tape of the interview. In the partial transcript, Starnes posed a question about whether public or Christian universities had "the best deal."
___According to the transcript, Paige responded: "Each of them have real strong points and some of them have some vulnerabilities, but you know, all things being equal, I'd prefer to have a child in a school where there's a strong appreciation for values, the kinds of values that I think are associated with the Christian communities, so that this child can be brought up in an environment that teaches them to have strong faith and to understand that there is a force greater than them personally."
___The BP story had quoted Paige as responding: "All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith ... . Where a child is taught that there is a source of strength greater than themselves."
___Paige, in the news conference, said his quotations had been taken out of context in a way that caused people to believe he was discussing a preference for Christian values in K-12 education rather than that on the college level. He also said he had said nothing for which he should apologize or resign.
___According to the Post's April 10 follow-up article, however, Starnes said that the other quotations that critics had found offensive were accurate and that he had characterized them in proper context.
___Starnes' story had characterized Paige's comments on Christian versus secular colleges as responding to the "animosity to God in public schools." In the lead paragraph of the story, Starnes summed up Paige's statements on public schools as asserting that "Christian values should have a place in the nation's educational enterprise."
___BP ran the transcript of the interview April 11 "to counter any confusion," according to an editor's note. "The report accurately portrayed the substance of Dr. Paige's faith in God but contained factual and contextual errors in other respects," the note said. "We regret the misrepresentations by the writer. Todd Starnes has been a trusted correspondent but no longer will be employed to write for Baptist Press."
___During his tenure on the staff at BP, Starnes authored numerous pieces that were critical of the BGCT and its relationship with the SBC.

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