Let's go to the Carter recording

carter lecture photoFor the past few days I have been on the road and away from a steady Internet link. However, even during a drive from Boston to Baltimore, I was plugged in enough to the mainstream media (and the Drudge Report) to know that GetReligion's friend Frank "Bible Belt Blogger" Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had an interesting story on his hands. It all started with a routine interview with former President Jimmy Carter. Then all heck broke loose. The story of the smackdown Carter laid on President George Bush clearly has legs -- as can be seen in widespread network news attention and, now, a follow-up piece in The New York Times. Here is a taste of that:

Former President Jimmy Carter was cited for a doozy over the weekend when he called the Bush administration "the worst in history" for its impact around the world. Though Mr. Carter tried to take it back on Monday, saying on the "Today" show that his remarks were "careless or misinterpreted" and that he was "not talking personally about any president," he has still incited a tsk-tsking tsunami in the capital.

His offense: failing to observe the protocol that former presidents should speak respectfully of their successors, or at least with some measure of restraint.

"His language was much sharper than what you'd normally hear" from an ex-president, said the presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

The key to all of this, for me, is tied up in Carter's attempt to retreat.

Click here for a basic story on that stage of the firestorm. However, the best summary of the flap can be found in reporter Mark Fitzgerald's online piece for Editor & Publisher. The key is that this ended up being, in a way, a not-so-hidden attack on Lockwood. Note this lede:

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Religion Editor Frank Lockwood -- who set off a firestorm of criticism that reached into the White House with his story quoting Jimmy Carter calling George W. Bush the worst president in history -- said Monday that he quoted the former president accurately, fairly and in context.

... "I think the president's words speak for themselves," Lockwood told E&P. "He's accurately quoted, he's quoted in context, and it's fair."

The crucial point, in this digital day and age, is that Lockwood played a very high card -- he put the audio file of the key moment in the interview right on the Web, at the newspaper site and his own blog.

Thus, E&P wrote:

Lockwood's story in Saturday's Democrat-Gazette quoted Carter as saying: "I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history."

After a national uproar over the weekend that included a scolding by a White House press spokesman, Carter said on the Today Show that his comments were "careless or misinterpreted." Carter added that he had been asked a question comparing the foreign policies of the administrations of George W. Bush and Richard M. Nixon, suggesting that the "worst" title was limited to foregn affairs.

But in the audio of the interview, which the Democrat-Gazette posted on its Web site Saturday, Lockwood can be heard asking: "Which president was worse, George W. Bush or Richard Nixon?"

So what is going on here?

Well, for starters note that this regional newspaper ran the story quickly, on Saturday. Lockwood tells me that they knew Carter was giving many interviews promoting his recent work and they knew they had to get the news out quick. They elected not to wait for the bigger Sunday newspaper.

Meanwhile, there is the chance that Carter -- whose social activist life has long crossed back and forth over the news line between religion and politics -- may have been more candid in an interview with a "religion reporter" because, well, this was only a religion-news story.

And there's the rub. Almost every professional religion writer knows that there are "religion stories" and then there are stories -- usually linked to politics, scandal or tragedy -- that contain religious elements at their core yet editors decide that they are, in effect, too important to be "religion stories." At this point, religion reporters -- alas! -- get removed from the story and the "real reporters" take over.

Well, clearly Lockwood (a former Washington correspondent) knew he had a big story and he wrote it. Good for him.

All over this country there are professional religion reporters who can ask hard questions and get the results into the newspaper. I am glad that this story was allowed to stand and, with that audio recording, a good reporter was able to back it up.

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