My wife and I spent a wonderful Christmas Eve at our church of about 16 years, Marietta First United Methodist. We took communion with our church family, heard anew the Nativity story and were moved, as always, when lighting candles during “Silent Night.”
We exchanged greetings with lots of our fellow church members including Tim Lee, chairman of the Cobb County Commission. I recall a hearty handshake and each of us saying, “Merry Christmas.”
Lee remembers it differently, as I learned from this Marietta Daily Journal report:
“It’s no secret county Chairman Tim Lee is upset by what he says is biased reporting by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution regarding the Braves’ move to Cobb County. So, Lee said he found himself in a somewhat strained affair as the greeter at the 4 p.m. service on Christmas Eve at the First United Methodist Church on Whitlock Avenue in Marietta. Among those who showed up was AJC editor Charles Gay, who attends the church.
“I was a greeter out front, and he walked up, and I could tell he started to get jittery. He had to say hello to me. So I stuck my hand out and wished him and his wife a very Merry Christmas, and I’m so glad to see him there at the church on Christmas Eve,” Lee said.
“Lee said the encounter was better than the Fourth of July service, where the Rev. Dr. Sam Matthews asked Gay to deliver the holiday message from the pulpit, as dictated by church tradition. “And he got up there and equated their work on the Braves deal with that of a patriot as outlined in the Constitution, and that they were a true patriot because of what they’d done on behalf of the American citizens with the entire Braves deal. From the pulpit, my friggin’ church!” Lee said. “I mean, I got more people coming up to me afterward saying, ‘Tim, just stand tall. You’re good, you’re good. We’re with you. That was out of line.’”
Sam Matthews, I don’t think he envisioned it, either,” Lee continued. “He’s a pastor. He knew he let a guy get up there in the pulpit and attack. Sam Mathews (sic) is the biggest baseball fan on earth.”
No one contacted me for comment but I’ve never before been called “jittery” in my life. (That caused much amusement among friends who know my laid-back demeanor.)
I wonder how the 3,000 or so members of our church feel about God’s house being declared by Lee to be his “friggin’ church.”
But I will let you decide if, as alleged, I attacked anyone during my June 29, 2014, speech.
Our church celebrates “Patriotic Sunday” each year on the Sunday before July 4, a tradition that involves lay speakers delivering remarks about patriotism as it relates to their lives. My wife, AJC blogger Jennifer Brett, and I were asked to deliver last year’s talk.
I spoke about the First Amendment’s free-press guarantee that helps keep government accountable to the people. I cited three examples of AJC reporting that fit the theme, including our scrutiny of the Braves’ move to Cobb County.
An audio file and a complete transcript of my speech are at the bottom of this page. This excerpt is from the portion pertaining to the Braves:
“I’ll just make a confession right off the bat: I love the Braves. They’re my favorite sports team. I didn’t go to a big-time college football school, I grew up playing baseball. I love the Braves. I’m one of those people who, the Braves introduce a new alternate cap – Fourth of July, spring training – whatever it is, I’m one of those suckers that runs right out and buys it right away. Love the Braves.
“ I also love Cobb County. So when Jennifer and I moved here in 1998 – we moved here to work for the AJC – we could have lived anywhere in the region. We chose Cobb County and Marietta because it felt like home and over the past 16 years, it’s become home. When I’m out of town and people ask me where I’m from I say, “Marietta, Ga.” That’s how important the community is to me, how much it means to me. And so nothing would make me happier as a Braves fan and a Cobb resident than for the team’s move to my new home community, my adopted home community, to be wildly successful. That is truly what I want.
“However, I and my colleagues at the AJC would be failing the Founding Fathers, failing our journalistic mission, if we did not closely scrutinize the deal struck between the team and the government, because there’s $300 million, at least, of public money at stake in that deal, and it deserves scrutiny. The promises that have been made deserve scrutiny. The transparency of the deal deserves scrutiny. If that money, for example, is spent that much more wisely because of the attention that the AJC and a free press is putting on the deal, that is patriotic work.”
That was all I said on the topic.
I suspect Lee’s remarks about me in the Jan. 1 article were not personal, and that I was a proxy for the AJC’s taxpayer-minded coverage of the county’s handling of the stadium deal.
That’s coverage I remain proud of. I’m convinced it fulfilled the AJC’s obligation to the First Amendment. Here is the latest article regarding the move and here is a link to a page containing past coverage, so that you can read and decide for yourself.
If you’re interested, below is the full transcript of my remarks at First United Methodist Church on June 29, 2014. If you’re really interested, the audio clip follows.
First, a prayer.
Heavenly Father, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you this day. In Christ’s name, Amen.
That’s a prayer that I grew up hearing in the Episcopal church. And I share it with you because it gives me a little bit of comfort in speaking from behind the pulpit. In fact, when Dr. Sam first asked Jennifer and me to speak to y’all today I had just a moment’s hesistation about that because in my old church tradition, it was the clergy that spoke from behind the pulpit, not somebody like me. So, I’m very humbled to be here today.
Now, Jennifer also had a concern and continues to have a concern about speaking to y’all today. She is concerned that I will take too long and cut into her time!
So, I’d better get right on with my message.
I’m an editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as y’all heard. I’m in charge of local news. I’m also a person who loves his country. I’m an American patriot. I’m also a person of faith. I’m a Christian. So, those three aspects of my person, to some people, may sound like they’re in conflict with each other to a degree. Journalist, patriot, person of faith. To me, they work in perfect harmony with each other and in fact, being a journalist helps to make me a patriot and my faith works in perfect concert with the goals that I have as a journalist.
And so I’d like the opportunity, I’m grateful for the opportunity, to explain that to y’all today. But first, I think we have to go back to the very beginning: the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. As we all know, the First Amendment guarantees our freedom of religion, to worship as we choose. It also guarantees the freedom of the press, in the very same sentence. And it’s the First Amendment – it’s not the third, the 10th, the 20th – it’s the First Amendment. So you can see that these freedoms were uppermost in the minds of our founders.
Now, freedom of religion: I think we all understand that the founders did not want a state religion for America, which is what they’d had in England. But, freedom of the press, what was that about? Why is it enshrined in the very first amendment?
Well, the founders saw the press as an essential shield for the people against an overbearing, overly powerful government. And if you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll believe Thomas Jefferson. He wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a goverment without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
The latter: Newspapers without a government.
Now, of course, he didn’t mean that literally. What he was saying was, you can’t have one without the other, because he goes on to say, “But I should mean that every man should receive those newspapers and be capable of reading them.”
So, my one commercial message of the morning is: Subscribe to the AJC. Thomas Jefferson tells you to!
And, or, subscribe to the MDJ. We take both at our house.
But what Jefferson is saying there is that a free press is essential as a check against government. George Mason was another patriot who in 1776 wrote, a little more succinctly, “the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.”
I always think it’s a little funny that some of the people who are the most critical of the mainstream press today are the same people who are concerned about an overreaching, overbearing government, because as I’m saying, our founders enshrined the freedom of the press as an essential check against government.
So, I’ll talk about my own experience at the AJC, and I don’t want this to sound like an informercial for the AJC, but it’s what I know. I’ve worked there for 16 years. I’m very proud of the work that we do there. But I’m really talking about the press in general.
We take our role as community watchdog very seriously. We talk about our role as community watchdog virtually every day and we try to practice it every day in the community. Are we perfect? No. Is the press perfect in this role? Absolutely not. But we’re trying very hard at it and, I think, having some success.
Now, it might be easiest for y’all to understand what I’m talking about if I cited a few examples of some coverage that I’ve overseen in the past few years. I think it’ll help illustrate where I’m coming from.
So, as Dr. Sam mentioned: the Atlanta public schools cheating scandal. It was in 2009 that one of the investigative teams that worked with me first uncovered the very high likelihood that there was cheating, a lot of cheating, in Atlanta public schools. And so we came, the newspaper came, under tremendous criticism from the civic community in Atlanta and from the business community – people who just could not believe it could be true. And leaders who told us, “You’re making Atlanta look bad in the national mindset. You’re hurting Atlanta.” And that really, that criticism really cut us to the core, because it’s the exact opposite of what our mission is at the AJC, and the mission of a free press: it’s to make the communities that we serve better. And that’s what our goal was in our coverage: to make the community better.
Well, we continued to dig, and state investigators got involved, and they found that indeed, we were right. There was widespread cheating in Atlanta public schools. Fast-forward: Today you see a very different leadership in charge of the school system, you’ve seen cheating teachers fired, even prosecuted, and you see the schoolchildren of Atlanta getting a better, more honest education as a result of the work of the AJC and a free press. We made Atlanta public schools better. That’s patriotic work.
OK, example No. 2, a little bit closer to home now: The Braves move to Cobb County. That has also followed under my watch. And I’ll just make a confession right off the bat: I love the Braves. They’re my favorite sports team. I didn’t go to a big-time college football school, I grew up playing baseball. I love the Braves. I’m one of those people who, the Braves introduce a new alternate cap – Fourth of July, spring training – whatever it is, I’m one of those suckers that runs right out and buys it right away. Love the Braves.
I also love Cobb County. So when Jennifer and I moved here in 1998, moved to the metro region (we came here, we moved here to work for the AJC), we could have lived anywhere in the region, we chose Cobb County and Marietta because it felt like home and over the past 16 years, it’s become home. When I’m out of town and people ask me where I’m from I say, “Marietta, Ga.” That’s how important the community is to me, how much it means to me.
And so nothing would make me happier as a Braves fan and a Cobb resident than for the team’s move to my new home community, my adopted home community, to be wildly successful. That is truly what I want. However, I and my colleagues at the AJC would be failing the founding fathers, failing our journalistic mission, if we did not closely scrutinize the deal struck between the team and the government, because there’s $300 million, at least, of public money at stake in that deal, and it deserves scrutiny. The promises that have been made deserve scrutiny. The transparency of the deal deserves scrutiny.
If that money, for example, is spent that much more wisely because of the attention that the AJC and a free press is putting on the deal, that is patriotic work.
OK, third example hits even closer to home, especially for Jennifer and me. Who could forget the two winter storms that we lived through this year?
So, the first one we dubbed Snowjam, and everybody remembers why. That first storm, I was overseeing our coverage until about 10 o’clock that night. What started as snow flurries became a regionwide traffic nightmare. And at 10 o’clock or so, I got the bright idea: hey, we can probably make it home.
So Jennifer and I then spent the next nearly 12 hours getting home – and together in the car, my car. We’re still married. I think that’s a great accomplishment!
But beyond that, our experience was the experience of thousands of people. So what you saw in the days that ensued was very aggressive coverage by the AJC and other media outlets as well. Very tough coverage, asking questions of government: Why weren’t we better prepared? Tell us about the decisions that were made. Why weren’t there better decisions made in the moment and why wasn’t the response better?
So, a few weeks later, there was another snow storm, and what you saw that time was a much more energetic, much more competent response from government. There’s no question in my mind that the role of the AJC and a free press contributed dramatically to the fact that in storm No. 2, you didn’t see thousands of people stuck on the roads overnight. You didn’t see schoolchildren and their teachers stuck away from their families in their schools overnight. You didn’t see metro Atlanta as a region held up as a national laughingstock. The work of the AJC and a free press contributed to making Atlanta, metro Atlanta, a better place to live in that second storm. That was patriotic work.
I often get asked, or really, accused is the right word, and all of us in the press do, of having an agenda, and I’m just going to confess to you today that we absolutely do have an agenda. It’s just not the one that’s usually assigned to us. Our agenda, as laid out by the founding fathers, is to make Marietta, to make Cobb County, to make the state of Georgia, even the United States, better places to live, through our watchdog journalism, by asking the tough questions, as the founders intended us to do.
Like I said, are we perfect at it? Absolutely not. But we try very hard, and we know who we’re working for. We’re working for the people. We will scrutinize the actions of our government – their words, their deeds, their promises and the way they spend your money. And then really, it’s up to the community to decide what to do about that.
That is the role that the founders set up for a free press.
I’m really grateful that the founding fathers enshrined this role in the First Amendment, I’m very grateful. And I’m very grateful that I get to have a role in this patriotic mission that the founding fathers set up for up for us. It’s an honor for me to be able to spend my career doing this kind of work. I think it’s what the founding fathers intended. I also think I’m doing the kind of work that God intended for me.”