A week after Secretary of Education Rod Paige was widely criticized for comments on religion and public schools, Department of Education officials released transcripts of an interview that they said showed his remarks were mischaracterized.
The written text of the interview with the Baptist Press released by the department detailed instances in which the agency said Mr. Paige’s statements were not reported accurately. The Education Department prepared the text from a recording it made of the original interview.
“Our goal was to ensure that Secretary Paige’s comments were understood in the proper context and in their entirety,” Daniel Langan, a spokesman for the department, said last week. “And that appears to have been achieved.”
On its Web site, the Baptist Press published an “editor’s note” on April 11 stating that its story had “contained factual and contextual errors” made by the reporter, who it said “no longer will be employed to write for the Baptist Press.”
Mr. Langan said the Education Department asked the Baptist Press, an online publication that has a central bureau in Nashville, Tenn., to review the actual transcripts of the interview, and consider posting the full transcript on its Web site. Department officials did not ask the Baptist Press to sever its ties with Todd Starnes, the reporter who conducted the March interview, according to Mr. Langan.
Mr. Paige was roundly criticized by advocacy organizations, members of Congress, editorial writers, and others for the interview that appeared in an April 7 edition of the Baptist Press, a national news service serving Southern Baptists. The secretary was at one point quoted as praising the “strong value system” in Christian schools and universities, in contrast to public schools “where there are so many different kids” with different kinds of values.
Critics said those comments, and others in the story, made it seem as if Mr. Paige was openly voicing a preference for Christian institutions, or advocating a greater Christian influence in public education. In a news conference on April 9, the secretary said those remarks were taken out of context, reiterated his respect for the separation of church and state, and rejected calls from critics to either apologize or resign. (April 10, 2003.)
Over the next few days, however, the department went further, releasing a transcript of Mr. Paige’s interview with Mr. Starnes. In addition to the transcript, agency officials composed a document-annotated in electronic “red pen"-showing instances in which they said the secretary’s original comments differed from those that ended up in the published article.
In some cases, department officials said words were omitted; in other cases, sentences and phrases were deleted that otherwise would have put Mr. Paige’s remarks in context.
Mr. Paige and department officials pointed out at least one of the apparent discrepancies at the April 9 press conference, in reference to a quote in the article from Mr. Paige saying, “All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith.”
The transcript showed that the secretary had been asked about the choice among private, Christian, and public universities, and began his answer by saying, “That’s a judgment, too, that would vary because each of them have real strong points and some of them have vulnerabilities.”
Later, Mr. Paige said in the transcript that he would prefer having a child in a school where “there’s a strong appreciation for values,” the kind that are associated with Christian communities, “so that this child can be brought up in an environment that teaches them to have strong faith and understand that there is a force greater than them personally.”
In another section of the Baptist Press interview, the department’s transcript shows Mr. Paige was asked, “What do you think one of the chief benefits of religious education is?”
The Baptist Press quoted him as giving this much-scrutinized response: “The reason that Christian schools and Christian universities are growing is a result of a strong value system. In a religious environment, the value system is set. That’s not the case in a public school where there are so many different kids with different kinds of values.”
The transcript shows Mr. Paige responding this way: “Because of the strong value-system support. Values go right along with that. In some of our other schools, we don’t have quite as strong a push for values as I think we would need. In a religious environment, the value system is pretty well set and supported. In public schools, there are so many different kids with different kinds of experiences that it’s very hard to get consensus around some core values.”
Another part of the transcript makes it clear that Mr. Paige was quoted out of context as saying he would pray for those who opposed his view that religion had a place in public schools.
In fact, the question Mr. Paige was responding to when he said “I would offer them my prayers” concerned how he would answer critics who said that President Bush was “too religious.”
But seeing the actual transcript of the interview did little to satisfy Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Church and State, who said Mr. Starnes was being made a “fall guy” for doing his job.
Mr. Lynn, whose organization is located in Washington, said he hadn’t changed his belief that Mr. Paige should either retract his comments or resign. A close reading of the secretary’s remarks showed that Mr. Paige’s comments were taken in context, Mr. Lynn said, and that the secretary displayed a belief in promoting one faith over others in schools.
“I have read this and reread this, and I don’t see how with a straight face they can say he was misquoted,” Mr. Lynn said. “I don’t think [releasing the transcript] helps any.”
Mr. Starnes, the director of communications for Union University, a Southern Baptist institution in Jackson, Tenn., had said earlier that his story on Mr. Paige was scheduled to appear in a university publication alongside another story, but that the university had agreed to let the Baptist Press use an advance copy of it.
Neither Mr. Starnes nor officials at the Baptist Press could be reached last week for comment.