‘Faith-filled’ Carter has his say

I understand.

No, really, I do.

Reporters love to share former President Jimmy Carter’s stories and opinions. As the nation’s 86-year-old grandfather-in-chief tours the nation promoting his latest book, “White House Diary,” he’s generating a fair amount of ink. No surprise there.

A telephone interview by Carter with the Salt Lake Tribune resulted in a story with a strong religion angle. From a GetReligion perspective, that’s terrific.

But here’s the problem: The headline makes it clear immediately that this will be more of a puff piece than a meaty news story:

Religion, politics getting too cozy, warns a faith-filled Carter

Any idea where this story might be headed?

OK, I won’t keep you in suspense. Here’s the top of the report:

For a man who evangelized foreign leaders and taught Sunday school while U.S. president, Jimmy Carter has some strong words for what he sees as an “excessive melding of religion and politics.”

And it began, he said, with the denomination he called home for more than seven decades: the Southern Baptist Convention.

“It’s now metastasized to other religions, where an actual affiliation between the denomination and the more conservative elements of the Republican Party is almost official,” Carter said during a phone interview while he was in Salt Lake City this week promoting his new book, White House Diary.

“There are pastors openly calling for members to vote a certain way,” the 86-year-old ex-president said. “That’s a serious breakdown in the principle of separation of church and state.”

Now, if there are any curmudgeonly old editors out there, they probably noticed at least two groups that might deserve a chance to respond to the lovable old president. Those groups would be, of course, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Republican Party.

Alas, there are apparently no such editors at the Tribune. Or at Religion News Service, which picked up the story and distributed it nationally. Now, RNS prides itself on being “the only secular news and photo service devoted to unbiased coverage of religion and ethics — exclusively.”

Back in March, a compelling RNS profile of Carter at his church in Plains, Ga., impressed me as the kind of personality feature that didn’t require traditional he said/she said treatment.

But in this case, RNS went so far as to pitch the story this way on its Tuesday blog roundup of religion news (you might recall that Tuesday was, um, Election Day):

Former President Jimmy Carter criticized Republicans’ and Southern Baptists’“excessive melding of religion and politics.”

Does Journalism 101 no longer apply? Do those criticized — or expert sources sympathetic to their position — no longer deserve a chance to respond? Or are the rules different when the one doing the criticizing is a “faith-filled” former president?

To be fair, the 400-word RNS version of the story appeared on its daily digest of shorter news items, so maybe space was an issue. Still, basic journalistic principles should take precedence over word counts.

Keep reading, and the story gives background on how Carter left the Southern Baptist Convention to escape its “conservative politics and new doctrinal statements that are, in Carter’s view, more creed-based and anti-woman.” Again, no need for a response from anyone who might disagree, right?

I’m trying to understand. Really, I am.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Carter once gave me the evil eye for asking about political comments made by speakers at the New Baptist Covenant meeting in 2008.

  • John Rogers

    I saw Mr. Carter on Bill Mahr’s show today and gained a new found respect for him as a person and president.
    He governed on a platform that we could use today.

  • Kristine

    Now, if there are any curmudgeonly old editors out there, they probably noticed at least two groups that might deserve a chance to respond to the lovable old president. Those groups would be, of course, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Republican Party.

    Really? I read this with the viewpoint that this is a story about Carter. A telephone interview, right? Trying to quote any other sources are not part of the format of this kind of story, unless you’re specifically looking for something to criticize in Carter’s viewpoint, or you are calling into question his conclusions. Any kind of outside response in an interview like this would simply destroy the flow.

  • http://GetReligion.org Bobby

    So on telephone interviews, sources are allowed to bash entire groups without any kind of response? Especially if a balanced story would interrupt the flow? Really?

  • http://homepage.mac.com/bjmora/rpdenom/Reflist.html BJ Mora

    Mr. Carter I believe belongs to a different Baptist association – in a longer article, perhaps, that is germane.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/bjmora/rpdenom/Reflist.html BJ Mora

    (Sorry for the multiple postings.)

    And Mr. Carter raises the old canard criticizing creeds. Everyone has a creed. Everyone has a personal interpretation of the Bible and of the person and work of Jesus Christ. The question (especially for a Christian!) is whether your creed, your belief, your faith is in line with (my creed now!) historic, orthodox, Protestant Christianity.

  • kristy

    Yes, if it’s an interview done for the lifestyle pages, and presented as such. Now, should the journalist who was doing the interview have asked for Mr. Carter to clarify? Yes, of course, as part of the interview. But it appears that he didn’t, and I personally think that was where the responsibility for ‘balance’ in the story should have come from. I would have asked for examples of which denominations, and how Mr. Carter knew those things were happening. Perhaps that information was obtained, but discarded from the story because of space constraints, I don’t know.
    If the story had been in the ‘hard news’ section of the paper, it would have run differently, with more sources, with a different focus. Then, maybe, Republicans and those unnamed denominations would have had a chance to respond in the story.