Newsweek's mailbag

mail callThe mail call for Newsweek's splash on the Mormon Church was thick and heavy, judging by those letters published in this week's issue. There are a total of 15, by my count. Here's a good summary:

One member "anxious about inaccuracies" was "pleasantly surprised at the great job of compactly presenting such a huge topic." Another insisted that "the Mormon Church has no need to 'confront' its past." Still another wondered how an article by "a current member of the church could offer a 'fair and balanced' portrayal." Many readers took exception to calling Mormonism a Christian denomination, and others criticized the church for its secret ceremonies and exclusivity. "The Mormon Church is a Masonic lodge dressed up for public view as a Christian church," a former member said. Others questioned Mormonism's history, pointing to the frequently altered Book of Mormon and founder Joseph Smith's reported discovery of gold plates. Charged one, "This obviously fairy-tale religion was founded by a boy magician and latter-day con man."

Some of the letters are quite vicious, many voicing the opinions already voiced on this blog, but in Newsweek, as with most publications, full names and localities are published. The effort involved and the publication of a bit more personal information somehow give them more weight.

The highlight for me was the letter addressing the issue of Newsweek's allowing a lifelong Mormon to report the piece:

Elise Soukup may be a lifelong Mormon, but her reporting displays little knowledge of Christianity. She wrote a nice PR piece for the Mormon Church, which fits well into its campaign to promote itself as mainstream and Christian. When Soukup notes the wonderful care the Mormon Church gives the daily needs of its members, she is correct. The Mormons are unlike the Lutherans or Catholics who, with their huge social-service programs, take care of anyone in need. Caring for all, not just one's own church members, is what Jesus taught his followers to do. Charles Jones Chicago, Ill.

So is Mr. Jones being sarcastic? I believe so. But I'm having trouble sorting out his exact point.

More importantly, is this a big issue? Frequent GetReligion commenter Stephen A. first brought this to our attention early on. It's something I wish I had known for the original post, because part of me believes this should have been disclosed in the article, but that could establish a bad precedent for religion reporting.

In an online chat, Soukup is quick to disclose this fact. Perhaps that's a more appropriate forum for disclosing personal information like this.

She addresses it later in the chat and is quite upfront about it:

Salt Lake City, UT: How can you write a cover with your conflict of interest, without disclosing your bias in your article? Elise Soukup: Good question. In the [editor's] note at the front of the magazine, I'm identified as "a lifelong member of the Mormon Church." I am definitely upfront about it! But the larger question is the one of, how can you write an article about a church if you are a believing member? First off, I have to say that I am just one of the many people that worked on this article before it made it to print. It went through several senior editors -- none of them Mormon. So there's definitely a checks and balance system! With that said, it's not uncommon for reporters to write about what they know (e.g. I believe that the person who wrote last week's TIME article about gay teens was gay himself). But my job became easy when I realized that I didn't have to take sides. Really, what I tried to do was provide a straightforward and candid account of founder Joseph Smith, the church he established and the most common debates or controversies that are discussed. I've gotten angry letters on both sides, so I feel that I'm doing my job.

Just doing her job, trying to be straightforward, receiving angry letters from both sides ... as a journalist, this works for me.

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