Not all sources are created equal

ezra taft bensonYesterday I highlighted some of the thoughtful and interesting media coverage of the death of Gordon Hinckley, the president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Commenters began discussing whether it was a lock that the next president would be the most senior (in terms of experience) church leader. The Associated Press' Jennifer Dobner wrote a story about how Mormons have chosen successors since the death of Joseph Smith. Most observers say that Thomas Monson (pictured below) will be the next church president since he fits the traditional pattern of senior church apostle:

Succession was not always so neatly decided, said Mike Quinn, a Mormon historian who was excommunicated from the church. Church founder Joseph Smith never laid out a plan for the process, and more than three years passed from the time he died until Brigham Young took over the church.

"You had different people saying different things about the way to go," Quinn said.

When Young took control of the church, only about half its members followed him to Utah. Gaps of two or more years between presidencies continued - with senior leaders arguing against seniority as the sole basis.

"Age was a factor," Quinn said. "They didn't want to create a gerontocracy. There was a power struggle, or you could say, prophetic disagreement."

Since it is true both that Quinn is a Mormon historian and also someone who was excommunicated from the church (here's a 2006 article from the Wall Street Journal about both of those things), it's good that Dobner disclosed those facts. But note who her next source is:

The system also means that Mormon presidents are bound to be well beyond standard U.S. retirement age. Since 1945, only one church president has been younger than 75 when he took office. To some, that's troubling.

"There ought to be some kind of vehicle established that takes into account that individual condition, mentally and physically," said Steve Benson, grandson of former church president Ezra Taft Benson, who died in 1994. "I don't see what the problem is. This is done in all kinds of corporations."

This quote from Steve Benson is fairly straightforward. But -- and as Pee Wee Herman once eloquently said, "Everyone has a big but" -- Benson is not just a grandson of Ezra Taft Benson (pictured above). He's the same grandson who went public with reports of his grandfather's senility while he was in office. His 1993 interview with the Associated Press about his grandfather's condition sent shockwaves throughout the church and was seen as a massive act of betrayal.

I can't overstate how huge this story was. Steve Benson is no longer a member of the Mormon church and is not a neutral observer. He is, as some readers might know, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist. Steve Benson continues to speak out against the church, most recently in a piece for Editor and Publisher.

MONSON mediumSteve Benson aside, probably no one in the LDS church knew the challenges that arise with the Mormon succession tradition better than Hinckley. He was very instrumental in comforting the members of the church during the Benson presidency and, as one reporter put it in a previous article, helped reshape Mormon views about church leadership. But rather than mention Hinckley's management of the crisis, Dobner quotes him saying that a church run by old men is a wonderful thing.

Dobner's article does have some interesting perspective, such as the way it ends:

The head of the Mormon Church is not only leader of a worldwide church, but also a prophet, living testament to the LDS belief that divine revelation continues to this day and can reshape church teaching.

"Normally, we think of priest and prophet as two roles - one is a part of the organizational structure, the other is a voice in the wilderness," said Richard Bushman, who wrote a biography of church founder Joseph Smith. "From the very beginning, it was a stroke of genius on Joseph Smith's part to combine a bureaucratic and a prophetic role."

The Mormon Church also differs from most other religious groups in that it relies not on professional clergy, but on unpaid lay leaders.

Most high-ranking LDS officials have extensive business experience, including Hinckley's likely successor, Monson. The 80-year-old has a master's degree in business administration and was formerly general manager of the church-owned Deseret News.

"These guys are generally not theologians," said Richard N. Ostling, co-author of "Mormon America: The Power and the Promise" and former religion writer for Time magazine and The Associated Press. "They are businessmen and they need to be because it's like running a multinational corporation, and all the key decisions are tightly held at the top."

As the LDS church is in the spotlight these next few weeks, readers are looking for information that helps them understand the Mormon church and the role of the prophet and president. Bushman and Ostling are good sources to go to for such perspective. While Quinn is certainly knowledgeable in his own right and Benson's proximity to the issues at hand noteworthy, if reporters use them as sources they should be very clear about where they are coming from.

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