Among the first lessons good journalists learn is that there is always another side to a story, and it’s the journalist’s responsibility to seek it out and report it as accurately and completely as possible. Sadly, this lesson seems all but forgotten in too many media quarters.
That said, the sensational initial reports about the demotion and firing of long-time Southwestern Baptist Theology Seminary President Paige Patterson appear to be seriously incomplete. Fortunately, the rest of the story is beginning to come out, thanks to a brave woman, Sharayah Colter. In a May 31, 2018, blog post, Colter provided “The Untold Truth: Facts Surrounding Paige Patterson and His Removal from SWBTS.”
Two things are important to remember: First, Colter is the wife of Patterson’s former chief of staff, was a student of Patterson, and socialized regularly with him and his wife. That puts Colter in a position to know facts that could add crucial context to the Patterson story. It also potentially shapes how she sees those facts.
Second, I am an online graduate student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), so I understand the theological issues here from a specific perspective. I am also a career journalist and a passionate defender of the First Amendment and the public’s right to know all the facts.
With both Colter and myself, readers should apply the same tests good journalists apply to sources: Are they in a position to know what they claim; do they have motives to misrepresent the subject they are addressing, and can their claims be independently corroborated?
In the final analysis, evaluating the relative importance of sources is often highly subjective and thus guided by experience. And yes, I am definitely from what is now sometimes derisively described as “the old school” of journalism — facts are more important than the opinions, impressions or ideology of the reporter.
Now, to the facts Colter presented. First, Patterson — who was then at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary — did not discourage a former seminary student from reporting an alleged rape, as first reported by The Washington Post.
As The Post reported, the student, according to Colter, alleges that Patterson met with her along with four male seminarians and encouraged her not to report the alleged rape to police. The article states that she was placed on probation but that she did not know why. The student, Megan Lively, identified herself publicly in a tweet.
Here are important facts The Post did not report, according to Colter:
“Patterson says he does not recall meeting with Lively, which appears in keeping with a letter Lively sent to Patterson dated April 15, 2003 [Colter attached the letter and response to her blog post].
“‘Finally, thank you for the accountability and for putting me on probation. Even though Dr. [Allan] Moseley has handled this, I think it is great that the school enforces discipline,’ Lively wrote in the letter. ‘At first, I was humiliated and embarrassed. But I know now this is from my own actions and the consequences of those.’
“In July 2003, Lively sent a handwritten notecard to Patterson, again offering her gratitude and appreciation to him [Colter attached the notecard and response to her blog].
“‘I just wanted to take the time to thank you for the difference you have made in the life of our seminary and in my personal life,’ Lively wrote in the notecard. ‘We will be praying for you and support you 100 percent. The faculty and students at Southwestern have no idea how blessed they are to have you as their new president.’
“If a rape had indeed been alleged in 2003, and Patterson had known about it, he would have reported it to authorities, as he demonstrated in a different scenario involving a Southwestern Seminary student, when he called police even when the student asked him not to do so.”
Second, Colter describes the contrasting situation, which The Post also did not report, as follows:
“Patterson immediately called police in response to a female student claiming she had been raped. The accused man admitted to having sexual relations with the woman, but said it was consensual. The man provided supporting evidence of that to the police.
“Southwestern’s chief of police can confirm that the Fort Worth Police Department was called and responded. Patterson expelled the male student accused of rape. However, because the female student refused to press charges, Patterson had done all he could by calling the police, expelling the student, and encouraging the woman multiple times to press charges.
“Assistant professor of theology in women’s studies Candi Finch, who also served as assistant to Dorothy Patterson during her time as first lady at Southwestern, was in one of the meetings where Patterson met with the female student and her family members.
“‘I personally sat in a meeting with Dr. Patterson and this female student and two of her family members,’ Finch recalled. ‘Dr. Patterson opened and closed the meeting with prayer for this young lady. He encouraged her in my presence to press criminal charges against the young man, but she said she wanted to think and pray about it more.'”
This second scenario is crucial, in part, because of what Lively told The Post about the meeting with Patterson:
“‘They shamed the crap out of me, asking me question after question,’ said the woman, who attended the seminary until 2005 before dropping out for reasons she said were unrelated to the alleged incident. ‘He didn’t necessarily say it was my fault, but [the sense from him was] I let him into my home.'”
Lively also told The Post the man she claims raped her sought her forgiveness three years ago:
“‘I forgave him because that’s what the Bible tells me,’ the woman said. ‘Forgiveness also comes with the fact that I don’t ever want to see him or talk to him. I’ve not forgiven Paige Patterson. He’s also never apologized to me.'”
Colter deals in a similar vein with the other accusations against Patterson.
So what are we to make of all this? First, Lively’s view of Patterson is at least partially subjective, as indicated by her “the sense from him was” remark to The Washington Post. Some level of caution is in order, then, about other aspects of her account to The Post.
Second, Patterson’s actions in the second scenario described by Colter were dramatically different from those described in the first scenario with Lively. At the very least, the Post owes its readers a report of the second scenario and an attempt to reconcile it with the first one.
Readers are encouraged to compare Colter’s blog post with the Post story and then decide for themselves whether Patterson is simply the reactionary hypocrite the newspaper portrayed — or a controversial public figure who has been victimized by click-happy drive-by journalism.
As for The Post and other liberal media reporting the Patterson story, I remind them of what I was told early in my journalism career by Wes Pruden, who was then managing editor of The Washington Times: “Get it first, but first get it right.”