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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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • schratboy

    Carter: one-term president known for the worst economic conditions ever…chiding Bush as the worst? Clearly a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Carter is a buffoon.

  • Boyd Church

    Thank God for Jimmy Carter,
    1st true Christian President. He gave up his presidency to prevent a war with Iran. Too bad Bush is professing his Christianity when the votes count but when it comes to disagreeing with the vice President he disregards his commitment. Jesus hates war, without question.

  • http://www.AYearOfSongs.org TK Major

    I don’t get the impression talking to folks — and I’m a Republican — that many people would disagree with the former president’s off-the-cuff estimation of the current president or his negative impact on the US domestically or internationally.

    If Carter is in error, it seems to me, it’s in retreating at all.

    But, you’re right, it is an interesting story and it does shed light on how religious and national affairs continue to spill over the boundaries we attempt to set for them.

  • Frank Drake

    Carter proved an ineffectual president, and that was indeed unfortunate. But his shortcomings where of an entirely different order. He was was intelligent, sincere, and had the best of intentions. Had he succeeding in achieving many of his aims the country would have benifited. He’s failed legacy is all about what he failed to achieve.

    Bush is the opposite. He is not intelligent. He has presided over an administration that lacks any sense of candor, or transparency much less honesty. What he and his handlers are good at is exactly what Carter lacked, they know how to get their way and muzzle dissent. While what he has failed to do is also an issue (make us safer, protect us from corporate misdeeds, safeguard the environment) his failings are largely what is has “accomplished”. The current horror that is Iraq is his doing.

    The damage caused by Carter’s lack of political savy was significant. But it is orders of magnitude less then the damage Bush has wrought. This is true by any number of standards: number of humans needlessly killed and harmed, pathological disregard for the environment, undermining of our judicial system (and other branches of government through the systemic placement of corrupt and incompetent cronies) and the serious loss of reputation amongst our alleys and the rest of the world. Nothing of this caliber can be blamed on Carter.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Come on folks, I know we can debate the politics of this.

    But this is a journalism blog. Try to stick to the issues raised by the coverage of this interview and the nature of the interview itself. Take the political bashing — either directions — elsewhere.

  • Leo Judge

    The truth hurts. Historians will probably be a lot harder on this administration.

  • sam

    I agree. Historians will view this administration as one that had great hopes and dreams but failed horribly in terms of execution, mainly due to naivety and lack of experience.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Come on people!

    We know you have political opinions.

    What are the real journalism issues in this case? How do you think Carter — who has been around the block a few times — fell into this?

  • Joseph Fox

    Carter (an old man who very obviously thinks slower than he once did)was sucker-punched by a religious reporter asking a political question. Carter spoke the truth as he knew it and is taken to task for crossing some man-made rule. And when pressure is applied to recant, he is able to listen to the tape and see the question was really about a comparison between Nixon and Bush; and adjust his answer accordingly. The problem to me is in the man-made rule. Too many so-called good Americans have withheld knowledge that was essential for our Congress, Republicans and Democrats to make rational decisions. And although you may say Carter was only expressing an opinion, I think it was an opinion based on knowledge of facts.

  • Malcolm Calder

    Journalism? Ok. A couple days ago, just before Carter began his [regrettable] backpedal, I did a casual eyeball-survey of the headlines on this story from among the 4500 sources worldwide collated by Google News, as well as the contents of some of them. An interesting, but unsurprising pattern came clear.


    2 ways headlines play the story, by emphasis:
    1) Emphasize Carter’s criticisms
    2) Emphasize the White House (non-)response
    x) (minority of stories) Neutrally, refer to the conflict.

    2+ rough categories of national sources of stories:

    1) US publications
    1b) Publications by close US gov’t allies
    2) Publications from the rest of the world.

    You see how this goes, right?

    –>Headlines from most publications from the US, and many from close allies, emphasized the White House’s dismissing of Carter’s criticisms as “sad” and Carter himself as “increasingly irrelevant”, mentioning (in the story) little more of Carter’s criticisms than the decontexualized punchlines (“worst ever” presidency, etc.).

    –>Publications from around the rest of the World tended to emphasize Carter’s criticisms, giving more context and substantive detail to them, while setting the White House response in a relatively minor light.

    THIS ISN’T A MATTER OF CHOOSING AMONG EQUAL ANGLES FOR THE FRAMING OF A NEWS STORY. When the Bush Set (B.S.) face public criticism, they tend to respond predictably, pretty much according to formulaic PR guidelines. If the source of criticism is a person or group, we can project history forward and *safely predict* that the B.S. response will be to dismiss the critic(s) ad hominem while avoiding the substance of the criticism (or “answering” indirectly, with slogans and canards). So when they fulfil that expectation, THAT’S NOT NEWS; it would be news if they did otherwise! How can professional editorial judgment deem the B.S. (non-)response to be the meat of the story, when it conveys no new information (being only the latest instance of a familiar pattern)???

    The news in this story IS the substance of Carter’s criticisms, along with the fact that it is Carter making them.

    It serves a clear political purpose to headline the White House (non-)response, and to introduce Carter’s criticisms in thin extract (without them, there is no story, so they *must* be mentioned). I think it’s better to understand this instance of pro-Administration bias as rooted in deeply institutionalized attitudes, rather than personal editorial mischief — but the result is the same.

    The overseas, non-allied media generally had no trouble focusing on the real news.

    [Note: the pattern I indicate was only rough, with a number of exceptions, mostly in the form of domestic publications emphasizing Carter’s remarks.]

  • Andy

    I echo Tmatt. If I wanted more bloody political whinging, I’d go to a political blog. This is GetReligion, not GetBush or even GetWhomeverYourPoliticalAdversariesMayBe

  • Andy

    Though I did enjoy the Michael Caine version of GetCarter. . .

  • Dale

    How do you think Carter — who has been around the block a few times — fell into this?

    Carter has deep animosity to those with whom he has disagreement, and it shows in his word choice. This is the same man who wrote a book on the extremely complex and morally ambiguous Palestinian dilemma and subtitled it “Peace, Not Apartheid”. He’s sure he’s right, and the other guy is wearing a black hat.

    With that attitude, it was inevitable that he was going to say something inappropriate. Lockwood was there at the opportune place and time; Carter may have said something similar in a discussion of the economics of peanut farming.

  • Jerry

    There’s a couple different ways the media has played this. The superficial what one celebrity said about another and the substantive: are the criticisms valid or not. I wish the coverage had focused more on the later but am not surprised that a lot of the focus is the former.

    I appreciated “The Swamp” http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/news_theswamp/2007/05/carter_today_di.html quotes and comments which were part of the follow-up.

    The “Swamp” piece raised the issue of how someone today can ever apologize for anything. They can refuse to apologize and we see that. They can issue a counter-attack on those that challenge their statements. They can be honest and I think Carter was honest when he said his comments were ‘careless’.

    But I also wanted to agree with Terry’s comments about religion reporters needing to be reporters first and foremost because news is not simply categorized.

  • Maureen

    Carter hangs out with a lot of people who like their rhetoric exaggerated. People today seem to be entirely comfy with pulling all kinds of overwrought comments out, when among people they perceive as likeminded. This coziness overrode such considerations as prudence, or indeed, ordinary historical judgment.

    Even if one were not particularly fond of the current president and thought little of his foreign policy, it should be comparatively easy to analyze the presidents and find ones with disastrous foreign policies and foreign policies one liked less. (For instance, Carter seems quite unworried by the effects of Andrew Jackson’s foreign policy upon the Creek and Cherokee Nations, even though that intimately affected his own stomping grounds.)

    Ah, but that would require breaking away from that cozy community conformity, wouldn’t it? And nothing is more important than throwing stones at the current designated pariah. Anything else might make _you_ the pariah.

  • Blake

    Where was the background on this story? Where were the questions about the foreign policy successes of Carter’s presidency? Given his comments on Bush in the Middle East – why not quiz Carter on his glorious success in Iran, with the deposing of a long term ally in the Shah and his replacment Khomeni? The Hostage Crisis? His ability to use diplomacy to get the Soviets out of Afganistan?

    His Central America policy – the Sandanistas. His Africa policy – Communist revolutions in Mozambique, Angola…

    Does Carter get to be a de facto expert solely because of Camp David – his one true shining success?

    Even a polite question that raised one of Carter’s foibles might have given the piece balance.

    Louis Auchincloss, in his book Wilson (written in 2000), called him (Wilson) our most moralistic president. Perhaps they should have him pen a tome on Carter!

  • Buck Batard

    Jimmy Carter is the most maligned president in US history. He had the audacity to put solar panels on the White House. I think his stated reasons were to get us weaned off of Middle East oil. Ronald Reagan ripped those old solar panels right out. Who was the man with vision? Certainly not Reagan.

    Good for Carter. He’s absolutely right about the Bush foreign policy. Too bad he left out Bush being the worst on the domestic front as well. Are former presidents not supposed to tell us the truth? Sometimes it’s not pleasant, but still the truth.

  • Andy

    Blake: It wasn’t a foreign policy story, a detailed anlysis of Carter’s foreign policy succes & failures would be out of place. In follow-up stories, maybe.

    Buck: Please check the hyperbole and read up on US history. Plenty of Presidents have been as maligned in their lifetimes as Carter (both Adamses, Jackson, Grant, Hoover, Nixon all spring to mind) and I daresay one could make the argument that Buchanan’s domestic policies (which helped make the Civil War worse than it needed to be by twiddling his thumbs while the South initial armed and thereby led to several hundred thousand deaths) or Jackson’s (Trail of Tears, destruction of 2nd Bank of the US and with it central control of the money supply leading to the 19th C’s boom and bust cycle) were a mite worse than Bush’s.

    You may ahve some valid arguments, but such hyperbole fatally weakens them.

  • Jerry

    Carter and Wilson the two most moral presidents? Clearly we need more immoral ones. That was a joke, by the way, in case any here are, um, humor-challenged.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    JOURNALISM, people. This is a blog about journalism. I will be deleting all future posts that just pound on presidents past and present. We need commentary on the journalistic issues in this case.

    Thank you, in advance.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Journalism: Frank was doing a nice little religion story and news broke out…1:-{)> No kidding: The story was clearly not originally intended to be Carter’s assessment of W. So the “balancing” questions about Carter’s failures and foibles probably weren’t high on Frank’s list. But Frank was smart enough to recognize the wave when it started rising and he rode it a good long way. And then got the story into print quickly. Frank, if you’re “listening,” how about a few lines about how it went down, how you realized what was going on at the time? And then how you explained to you bosses that you’d hooked a big ‘un?

  • Steve Meiers

    Re: Journalism
    The fact that President Carter made such a statement is news and it needed to be reported. Anything else added to the article is just spin. The reporter is to be commended for not tossing it into the “nothing bad about our Bushy-Boy” file. Too bad our thoughtful and and fearless former POTS did not go the logical step further and call for IMPEACHMENT of the criminals Bush and Cheney. That would be great news and reporting it would be fine journalism in this nation full of bought and paid for embedded media with no interest in truth.

  • LPH

    The Carter incident is not news but gossip. For some reason, we have people claiming to be journalists who are simply writing gossip and using the disguise of news value. Would Walter Cronkite run with this “story”? No, there is no social value. There is a deep challenge of finding a true journalist who searches a trail and uncovers ‘news’ versus people who are simply nasty and have their own personal agendas. So what if Carter answered the question? Did Bush change his policies? No, the administration responded in a nasty tone. This is not news worthy either. Tabloid sensationalism, yellow journalism, or just trash is all the “incident” is worth. Meanwhile, the Bush War rages on and “journalists” are not showing pictures of the dead, dying, wounded, and the crime. Anchors have become “show models” and the “art of journalism” has become a fashion show with low neck lines. The real tragedy isn’t that Carter was “trapped” by someone but that so many people think this is news.

  • Karen B.

    Boy have I ever become a huge fan of the ADG and Frank Lockwood.

    There was the wonderful interview of ECUSA Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in the ADG by a religion reporter who did her homework and who asked the questions so many of us Episcopalians wanted to ask KJS ourselves. And there was the FULL transcript of that interview on Lockwood’s blog.

    And now this huge scoop, again with outstanding documentation.

    ADG & Lockwood are becoming a really potent force in religion journalism, me thinks. Well done!

  • http://www.ubirevera.com/ Paul Barnes

    As to why this is news worthy of print…

    I see it this way, a former president, who is actively involved in foreign relations (or the very least, of embodying some kind of idea of ‘America’) bad mouths the current government in a very public way. In many ways, Carter may have negatively affected foreign relations as a whole rather than just the current administration. It seems like to me that, despite partisan politics, the American institution (and in particular, the office of President) should be preserved. Former presidents undermining it in this way does not seem to preserve its mandate. To use an example, I read that Bill Clinton asked Richard Nixon for advice early in his presidency and Nixon obliged. Two different presidents from two different parties, yet the good of the nation was perceived as more important than getting in any cheap shots.

  • Malcolm Calder


    It seems like to me that, despite partisan politics, the American institution (and in particular, the office of President) should be preserved. Former presidents undermining it in this way does not seem to preserve its mandate.

    I’m trying to make sense of this.

    Are you suggesting, Paul, that “the office of President” is under some threat? No, that can’t be it.

    That the President should, by statue or tradition, be insulated from criticism by some/any/all? Certainly not.

    That the President should be allowed to pretend to speak on the World Stage for all Americans – even when polls resoundingly prove that he does not, but show instead that his priorites are supported by a shrinking minority of Americans, approaching their minuscule level of support among the “World Community” he also presumes to speak for – an irony seldom noted by the subservient corporate media?

    The White House (and much subservient media) have portrayed Carter’s criticisms of Bush as a personal attack. They were not personal but political, not attacks but criticisms (however general). “Sad” and “irrelevant” were not directed toward any policies Carter was ramming down the World’s throat, but against Carter himself: *they* were personal.

    Can we tell the difference? Can the media? Only if we/they pay attention. The “Carter vs. Bush” framing is a distortion and an injustice, however titillating it may be for tabloid mentalities, however easy for a lazy and critically-numbed media to seize upon for an easy story, reliable ratings and an undisturbed inflow of corporate/advertising dollars.

    Corporate media: “Why rock the boat for some who-cares ideal of quality journalism, when we’re doing the best we can to win advertising revenue and shareholder confidence in a “competetive”, profit-tight media environment? The bottom line is quantified in money, not old-fashioned standards of professional journalism.

  • Stephen A.

    *Sigh* Another overt political story with only a HINT of religion here on the GR blog. Oh, well. I’ll bite.

    Carter was among the worst presidents in modern history. Period. But he revamped his image in the 1980s and 1990s as the Bible-believing old statesman who worked on Habitat for Humanity houses – in between coddling brutal dictators with horrific human rights records, that is.

    The Reuters story on this was abomitable, and didn’t mention any of his failures. It simply said that he was critical of Bush, and then noted all of BUSH’s perceived failures – and there are many, granted. Though you would think this was the Great Depression the way the MSM cover the 2000s, and not a time of near-full employment.

    The CNN and other whitewash MSM coverage has covered up Carter’s hideous record (giving away the Panama Canal, failure in Iran, etc.) while playing up the attacks on Bush. This is very, very, very typical coverage here, and it’s not “corporate-biased,” either. Just plain old liberal bias.

    Religiously (I’ll pretend there’s a religion angle here) this was *hardly* a religion story. Liberal religionists, including reporters, always make these things about attacking Bush, for some reason anyway.

    I’ve seen little coverage of Carter’s liberal Christian faith being explored, in relation to Bush’s supposed conservative Faith. Is there a “Neo-Conservative” faith they can dredge up, BTW? I’m assuming so, given the “He’s a fundie neo-con who wants to bring on Armageddon” attitude of most reporters.

  • Malcolm Calder

    Blake says:
    May 22, 2007, at 4:39 pm

    Where was the background on this story? Where were the questions about the foreign policy successes of Carter’s presidency? Given his comments on Bush in the Middle East – why not quiz Carter on his glorious success in Iran[....]

    Does Carter get to be a de facto expert solely because of Camp David – his one true shining success?

    I have not had any notable foreign policy successes involving more than a couple people in a pub, say, and have failings on an equal scale. Does that invalidate my claim that the oxymoronically-named “War On Terror” — with its appalling bloodspill and torrential moneyspill — has coincided nicely, in time and space, with an INCREASE in terrorism? Or that the “moneyspill” of tax revenue has correlated with stupendous profits to Bush-supporting corporations, by no coincidence at all?

    No it doesn’t, Blake; and if it did, it would just as well invalidate whatever you might have said, before you ever said it.

    If I’m missing something, please relieve my ignorance by explaining, clearly, how anything about Carter’s record as President bears upon anything he said about Bush. Hmm? Has relevance become irrelevant?

  • http://www.ubirevera.com/ Paul Barnes


    Granted, I was very unclear in my post, because I didn’t quite know how to put it down on paper, but your post helped to clarify it. Thanks.

    The way I see it, is that this criticism should have been kept ‘in house’ as it were. It is similar to family problems, whereby it is kept outside of the public knowledge as much as possible.

    In other words, I think that people are viewing this as disloyalty to something very important, which is the office of the Presidency. It’s like the military concept: you don’t salute the man, you salute the rank.

    Rather than any substantial criticism that can be leveled against Bush, it is more of how the criticism took place.

    Unlike Stepehen A., I really like this story, hence why I am commenting on it. Although I do think that it may be beyond the mandate of this blog, but who am I to complain?

    However, I think that what you have are two prominent American Christians (Carter and Bush) who are both important to the nation (or where important). You also have the “religious left” as our good blog hosts like to say, having a voice. That may be the religious ghost.

  • Malcolm Calder


    On the issue of whether, and through what means, and in what degree of publicity former Presidents should/shouldn’t criticize current officeholders, we may just differ on a matter of form. But maybe there’s more to it.

    It’s probably true that an instance of a former President publicly criticizing a current one detracts from the aura of dignified Authority in the office that is inculcated in most socioeconomic sectors from about kindergarten.

    Serious question: how bad is that?

    It seems that the norm of respect/deference/awe toward an Office serves a monarchical system quite well, but runs against values that some of us cultivate in ourselves and nourish in our children: to think for ourselves; to defer to no “authority” whose sole claim to authority is a position of power, but to honor only the authority of competence, integrity, beneficence, love, etc. What damage is done to Democracy if its officeholders are stringently and relentlessly held to account?

    I think “national unity” is overrated, earnest and dynamic debate (as opposed to partisan quarreling) underrated.

    Unlike you, I don’t put much in the decorums of putting on a unified public family face: if you do wrong – if you commit massive and horrible crimes – and I don’t speak out, then I am complicit, even if we are “family”.

    And who is “family”? Where do Carter’s (or anyone’s) loyalties lie? Isn’t it most Christian if Carter conceives his duty to humanity as superior to his loyalty to the protocols of American in-house politics?

    Then, if Carter perceives the Bush Presidency to be an unspeakable disaster for many (including non-Americans with no Presidential vote but unable to escape the consequences of Presidential fiats, e.g. Iraqis); a general bane to most Americans; a threat to all via the destabilization of the world order by way of an attempt to dominate it; and a cavalier assault on future generations in the form of pro-corporate anti-environmental policies — should he continue to keep his concerns in-house when doing so in the past has been ineffectual, and the stakes are so consequentially out-house?

    Do the loyalties we adopt through life supercede our loyalty to each other as human beings?

    Perhaps you don’t see the Bush Administration as especially dangerous, or bad, or fundamentally corrupt. Perhaps you see them as credible defenders of the Constitution and honest, if error-prone, representatives of all America. If so, then we see things differently. Very differently indeed.

    As I see it, whatever perceived harm (real or media-fabricated) that may result from a former President criticizing a current one, is trifling compared to the harm of anybody with a well-informed conscience keeping their mouth shut, or blithely smiling for the family photo album.

    And as far as that enormous elephant in the livingroom, that question…

    What do George Bush (and his Administration’s fierce loyalty to the Corporate sector at the cost of anything that stands in the way of their profits and power)…what do they have to do with…

    …the teachings of Jesus?

    Really, it strains the imagination to find any congruence, compatibility or concord. Bush saying he’s a Christian is like me saying I’m a billionaire.

    Spare a dime?