LAT needs source-selecting lessons

Since Mitchell Landsberg assumed religion reporting duties for the Los Angeles Times about a year ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has written a lot of stories that have drawn heavy criticism here at GetReligion. There was his first religion piece that caught my eye, the glorified news brief that mentioned Cardinal Roger Mahony was out at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Then there was this article sloppily referring to a San Diego evangelical megachurch as a fundamentalist one. And there was this coverage of the Vatican and this bit of puff-piece boostering.

To be fair, Landsberg did write a wonderful story about Yom Kippur for Jewish inmates.

But this story titled "Religious freedom under siege, Mormon leader says," is absolutely breathtaking. And I use that word in the same manner that Elaine from "Seinfeld" assumed the doctor was using it when he referred to her friends' hideous baby as "breathtaking."

The gist of the story is such:

Elder Dallin H. Oaks is one of the most-senior members of the Mormon Church's 12 leaders, known as the apostles. He's also a former Utah Supreme Court justice who has been talking for decades about threats to religious freedoms in the United States. Oaks repeated that message recently to a crowd of 800 at Chapman University, in Orange County, only now Oaks said things are getting worse.

"It is easy to believe," he said, "that there is an informal conspiracy of correctness to scrub out references to God and the influence of religion in the founding and preservation of our nation."

Not major news, but it passes. And Landsberg delivers this newshook in a sufficient manner. That's even followed by some nice context, though I disagree with the characterization of the 2008 passage of California's Proposition 8, which was heavily supported by Mormons, as "the church's ballot box victory."

It's what appears in paragraph eight and dominates the second half of the story that was utterly remarkable.

But many Americans find little evidence that religious liberty is threatened.

I actually agree with that statement, despite the news tabs kept by advocacy groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and a plethora of other organizations. I'm pretty ignorant in this arena and tend to operate under the guise that if I don't have trouble living by my religious convictions, others must not either. That may not be reality, and I think some of my colleagues would argue it is not, but I've never reported on the issue so I've never really reached beyond my own experience.

Landsberg, on the other hand, had a duty to readers in reporting a story like this to actually try to reflect reality. To that end, he turns to only two voices to back up that qualification that many Americans -- journalism shorthand for: too lazy to find a study but technically correct because "many" refers to an indefinite number -- feel religious liberty is not threatened. He reports:

"I hadn't noticed that," deadpanned Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates a robust separation of church and state. She questioned whether Oaks was simply feeling "wounded" by criticism of the Mormon Church's role in the Proposition 8 campaign.

"There's a real irony," she continued, "because he doesn't understand the meaning of religious freedom. ... What they want to do is to curtail freedom for gays. They're not for freedom. They're for theocracy in matters of marriage. ... They're not so different from the Islamists, the mullahs."

Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, has been following Oaks' statements from a unique vantage point. A lawyer, she is a former Mormon who grew up in Utah and has a familial perspective on the church.

Really? I mean, really?!

He couldn't have picked two worse "sources" to try to substantiate that claim. One is the co-president of an organization that thinks, at all times, that religion is too entangled with American public life and the other is a disaffected Mormon. It's not that their views don't matter. (I'm not even going to touch the "mullahs" comment.) It's just that they don't back up Landsberg's line that "many Americans find little evidence that religious liberty is threatened."

How about calling the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life? They not only survey many Americans, but they can speak authoritatively about American religious issues. What about talking with people who think religion is good but still want to protect its intrusion into the public sphere? I would have accepted even someone with a clear advocacy position like the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Just not two people at the complete opposite spectrum of Oaks. And I emphasize: I don't agree with Oaks.

Honestly, I debated whether this was even worth posting about. Why? Because this concept is so simple, so basic to decent journalism, that I learned it at my college paper. Editors at small newspapers, like my first haunt, The Sun in San Bernardino, would never let this story get off the city desk.

But that is just not the case at the Los Angeles Times. For a while I thought these issues would abate as Landsberg got comfortable on the Godbeat. And I wanted to believe they would. After all, the LAT is my local paper, arguably the most influential newspaper west of Appalachia and one with a history of strong religion reporting.

But the LAT's religion stories have improved only negligibly, and I'm starting to think I was overly optimistic. I'm also wondering if institutional knowledge at LAT headquarters on Spring Street has suffered so much from the five-year run of layoffs that there are no editors left to realize what is missing from their religion stories.

IMAGE: Via Wikimedia Commons

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