Peggy Fletcher Stack

Duck, duck, goose: Three different approaches to covering Mormon church president's death

Duck, duck, goose: Three different approaches to covering Mormon church president's death

As a young journalist fresh out of college, I applied for a business editor position in small-town Oklahoma.

As part of the interview process, the newspaper's top editor asked me to write an obituary — for myself.

The exercise both tested my writing skills and gave me an opportunity to enlighten my potential boss on what made me tick. I guess I passed the exam because I got the job. (I drove extra carefully on the way home, hoping to avoid the tragic car wreck I had just described.)

Very few people get to write their own obit, which leaves the story of their life — if their life merits an obit at all — to others to tell.

I mention this because — even though I am not a Mormon — I was interested in how various major news organizations covered this week's death of Thomas S. Monson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I wonder what Monson would have thought of the way these the following three ledes characterized him. (I'll reveal the source of each lede later in this post and pose a question or two.)

Lede 1:

Even as he ascended to the pinnacle of a worldwide faith, Thomas S. Monson never stopped being a Mormon bishop.
He was the same affable leader, folksy preacher and care-taking friend after becoming the LDS Church’s 16th president in 2008 as he was during his more than five decades as one of the faith’s 12 apostles.
During Monson’s nearly 10-year presidential tenure, which ended with his death Tuesday night at age 90 of causes incident to age, Mormonism faced some of the most intense public scrutiny in its history — from a divisive vote over gay marriage to high-profile Mormon candidacies for president, and a hotly debated policy for same-sex couples and their children. Still, the private prophet stayed largely behind the scenes, showing up unexpectedly at funerals, comforting the bereaved, visiting the sick and, before her death, caring for his wife, Frances.
“With tender feelings we announce that Thomas S. Monson, president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died this evening at 10:01 p.m. in his home in Salt Lake City,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins wrote in an email Tuesday at 11:39 p.m. “He was with family at the time of his passing.”

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Of 'MormonLeaks,' intellectual property and The Salt Lake Tribune -- recipe for bias?

Of 'MormonLeaks,' intellectual property and The Salt Lake Tribune -- recipe for bias?

There are, as many people know, two daily newspapers in Salt Lake City, Utah, the state's largest city, its capital city and, yes, world headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often colloquially referred to as the Mormon Church.

One newspaper is the Deseret News, where I served as a national reporter in 2014 and 2015. The LDS Church owns the company that publishes the paper. Many church members in Utah appreciate the Deseret News' coverage and family-friendly orientation. (And as noted when I rejoined the GetReligion team, I do not report on the paper's faith coverage due to my previous association there.)

The other newspaper is The Salt Lake Tribune, now owned by a son of billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr. after years of tumult following the paper's migration from local ownership to being part of a hedge-fund controlled national chain. This newspaper has often run pieces critical of, if not hostile to, the LDS Church, mostly in the opinion pages, but occasionally elsewhere. The Trib's longtime religion reporter, Peggy Fletcher Stack, is an award-winning Godbeat journalist who is very well sourced in the LDS community, as well as among other faith groups in the Beehive State.

But it was another Trib reporter, Christopher Smart, who recently took on a dispute between the Mormon leadership and an independent website called "MormonLeaks," which disseminates its information via Twitter and, until recently, Facebook. The group, headed by Ryan McKnight, a former member of the LDS Church, seeks to make public internal Mormon documents in order to bring "transparency" to the membership. (There's another group with the "Mormon Leaks" name, who assert their data relates to LDS history, not current church operations. These people disavow any association with McKnight and company.)

On March 1, attorneys for Intellectual Reserve Inc., a non-profit LDS Church corporation that owns the copyrights to LDS Church publications and documents, sent a "takedown notice" to McKnight's MormonLeaks group, and one of its hosting sites declaring a leaked document asserted to be copyrighted LDS Church property. The document was reported to be an internal slide presentation for church leadership summarizing why some people quit their membership. 

Sharing these slides online, the letter stated, infringed on that copyright. The hosting firm took the document down, and now the Trib jumped in.

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Opening up some legends: Mormons reveal founder Joseph Smith's 'theocracy' plans

Opening up some legends: Mormons reveal founder Joseph Smith's 'theocracy' plans

By nature, newswriters abhor secrecy, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. “Mormon”) is the most secretive of America’s large  religious denominations.

Headquarters provides no information about church decision-making and finances. Believers are oath-bound to reveal nothing about temple rituals. In 1999 church authorities even won a federal court order to halt Internet postings from the secret “General Handbook of Instructions” that defines procedures and policies for local leaders.

However under Thomas Monson, president since 2008, "Handbook” material is now available to members and the public. Also during  recent years a “Gospel Topics” section on the church’s official website has posted revealing historical essays about founder Joseph Smith’s odd “plural marriage” (i.e. polygamy) practices, the ban on full membership for blacks (ended  in 1978), disputed matters regarding the Saints’ unique scriptures, etc.

On Sept. 26th, the Church Historian’s Press issued a first-class, lavishly annotated volume in its ongoing Joseph Smith Papers series: “Administrative Records: Council of Fifty Minutes, March 1844–1846,” ($59.95). That title may not sound like anything to set journalists’ pulses pounding, but there’s a great story here. These legendary texts have been kept ultra-secret the past 170 years. And for good reason.

Background: In tumultuous 1844, Smith was assassinated while being held in jail for ordering destruction of a newspaper shop of dissenters  in Nauvoo, Illinois, who opposed his polygamy and political designs. At the time Smith was running for president of the U.S. after failing to get promises from the presidential candidates to protect his oft-persecuted flock.

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BYU, the Big 12 and the LGBT attack on the university's honor code: what's really at issue

BYU, the Big 12 and the LGBT attack on the university's honor code: what's really at issue

In a story for The Christian Chronicle earlier this summer, I wrote about the intensifying clash between faith-based universities and gay-rights warriors:

Revoke Christian universities’ eligibility for federal student financial aid.
Strip their membership in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
That’s what major gay-rights groups would like to do with higher education schools that espouse traditional biblical beliefs on sexuality and gender identity.

“Some voices are calling for Christian schools to be expelled from the NCAA, and others are calling for Pell Grants to be denied to students who attend our universities,” said Bruce McLarty, president of 6,000-student Harding University in Searcy, Ark. “These attacks seem to be coming from every direction these days.”

Against that backdrop, this week's news that LGBT forces are pushing to keep Mormon-owned Brigham Young University out of the Big 12 Conference is really no surprise.

This is how a column on the Sports cover of today's Dallas Morning News boils down the issue:

In the last 36 hours or so, Big 12 expansion has turned into a public debate on social issues.
Forget TV network preferences, or markets or academics or alumni bases or athletic programs or anything else that might be on the table when Big 12 presidents finally get around to a decision. The current front-burner issue involves BYU’s Honor Code and the LGBT community.
As it applies to BYU’s hopes of joining the Big 12, it’s now a significant factor, multiple industry and Big 12 school sources confirmed Tuesday. Suddenly, BYU’s strong football tradition, national following and 63,000-capacity stadium may not be enough to secure Big 12 membership.
“It is a serious issue,” said an industry source familiar with the Big 12 discussions. “Whether it keeps them out or not, it is a serious issue.”

Recent troubles at Baptist-affiliated Baylor University, of course, play into the BYU question. Here's some helpful context from our own tmatt — from his nationally syndicated religion column back in June:

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Pod people: More on Mormon church founder Joseph Smith's 40 wives and the media's delayed bandwagon

Pod people: More on Mormon church founder Joseph Smith's 40 wives and the media's delayed bandwagon

My "big news report card" this week on media coverage of the Mormon church acknowledging that founder Joseph Smith had up to 40 wives drew a humorous response from Daniel Burke, editor of CNN's "Belief Blog".

"Is there a curve?" Burke asked on Twitter, joking that it wasn't fair to "compare hacks" like him to The New York Times' Laurie Goodstein and the Salt Lake Tribune's Peggy Fletcher Stack.

Stack replied that it bugged her that the Mormon essay wasn't seen as big news until the Times reported on it, but she said Goodstein did a good job.

As my post noted, Stack reported on Smith's multiple wives three weeks ago, followed quickly by The Associated Press. 

But most news organizations jumped on the story only after The New York Times published the story on its front page earlier this week.

Over at Religion News Service, the delayed media bandwagon also perplexed Mormon blogger Jana Riess, who wrote a very GetReligion-esque post about it (there's a lot of that going around this week).

 

 

 

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Five for Friday: Zombies and other Godbeat headlines that you may have missed

Five for Friday: Zombies and other Godbeat headlines that you may have missed

I'm on the road today, working on a story and planning to enjoy an authentic Philadelphia Cheesesteak.

Since I'm in a hurry, I thought this would be a good time to provide quick links — with limited commentary — to a handful of stories from my GetReligion guilt folder. 

What better way to start your Friday than with a faith angle on zombies, courtesy of award-winning religion writer Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune?

 

The lede:

These days, you can see those lumbering, blood-drenched corpses with vacant eyes coming straight at you just about anywhere or anytime — not just at Halloween.
Zombie walks, as they are called, have become the most popular form of the grotesque genre. Folks dress up as the "undead" and stream down the street by the thousands. Such gory gangs periodically invade urban centers from Rio to Rome, Tokyo to Toronto and Sydney to Salt Lake City.
Zombies are even featured in their own wildly popular TV series, AMC’s "Walking Dead," which highlights the dilemma of a group of people facing enemies who had been their friends and neighbors.
Fascination with death and reanimation is not new, of course, but coming to life again has, in the past, been seen as a more, well, hopeful possibility.
This dark and fearsome image reflects a reversal of what Christians believe about resurrection, says John Morehead, a Utah-based scholar of religion and pop culture.

Next up: St. Louis Post-Dispatch Godbeat pro Lilly Fowler profiles a white female pastor who stands out in a predominantly black denomination and has been at the center of the Ferguson protests.

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Some compelling religion stories from Easter front pages

Fittingly, stories of rebirth and renewal made their way to many newspaper front pages on Easter Sunday. One of my favorites ran in the Chicago Tribune. That story, by Angie Leventis Lourgos, highlighted Christians such as Edeette Chukro, a Syrian who celebrated her first Easter in America:

Easter is bittersweet for those seeking refuge like Chukro and her family, who were among the Christian minority in Syria. They fear for their loved ones overseas. They worry their mass exodus will diffuse their culture and identity.

And they note the paradox in fleeing Syria, a cradle of ancient Christendom, in order to worship freely.

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Salt Lake Tribune loses its Faith, but not its @religiongal

Via Twitter, this sad news — but not as sad as it could have been — came Thursday: After more than 20 years and awards, Salt Lake Tribune cuts its weekly Faith section. Still have a job but so sad. http://t.co/71UjhGGYzp

— Peggy Fletcher Stack (@religiongal) April 10, 2014

The Salt Lake Tribune cut eight newsroom jobs Thursday, eliminated its Faith section and announced plans to drop other key print features as part of cost reductions ordered by the newspaper’s New York-based corporate owner.

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#RNA2012: Outside a Mormon temple wedding

In a couple of recent posts — here and here — I’ve already highlighted some of the excellent Godbeat journalism that claimed prizes in the Religion Newswriters Association’s annual awards contest.

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