There is pathos, then, in the failure of a speech. There is pathos when a president’s rhetoric proves unable, by its own standards, to take us somewhere better than we were before. And that pathos extends to the press—who in this case, Mattson suggests, served not merely as first-draft historians, but also, in their failure to see beyond the vagaries of the political moment, as agents of stagnation.

In that regard, ‘What the Heck’ is haunted by the specter of its own conditionality. It is the story of a speech that, to downgrade the moralism of Mattson’s title to mere realism, could have changed the country. “Are we so certain that the turn taken was the right one?” Mattson asks. “To remember Jimmy Carter’s speech today allows us to ask that question with the sort of moral import it deserves.”

Indeed, it is that moral space—the space not only between promise and reality, but between the inspiring and obstructive capacity of words themselves—that the press must navigate every day. Journalists must have split loyalties if they are to discharge their duties fairly and well. They must answer both to the present moment and to history—and to both at the same time. ‘What the Heck’ is, in the end, a sober reminder of all that is at stake in that paradox, and of what can go wrong when the press surrenders itself to the caprice of the instant. Mattson’s is not a message of happiness or reassurance. But it is the truth, and it is a warning.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.