Breaking: Massacre at Mountain Meadows

The Washington Post has a bit of a reputation for attempting to "macaca" conservative candidates. The phrase is based on the many stories the Post ran to derail the campaign of George Allen for governor of Virginia after he called a campaign opponent's staffer that word. It worked. Allen never recovered from the Post's coverage. But the Post's coverage didn't sit terribly well with those readers who are not politically aligned with the more liberal elements of the news or opinion pages. So when the Post attempted to do the same thing against Republican candidate for governor Bob McDonnell back in 2009, it fell flat.

The newspaper still ran all those stories about the masters thesis he wrote in the 1980s on traditional family values -- news stories, analysis, cartoons, columns, etc. And it ran those stories on the front page and pounded McDonnell for it day after day. But, well, the current governor of Virginia is named Bob McDonnell, so the counter-McDonnell campaign wasn't a huge success. It wasn't that the story wasn't legitimate, in my view -- that's what I argued at the time -- but that it received a level of coverage and was done with such a partisan fervor that it reflected poorly on the paper.

Now the Post has written two stories about Mitt Romney that his supporters say are tendentious, biased and unfair. I'm not putting out a "macaca" watch yet, but let's call it a "macaca" warning. The first story was the 5,000-word piece about a bullying incident from Romney's high school years. Some might say that's a good word count for a 50-year-old story from a candidate's teen-aged years. Others might suggest it's a wee bit of overkill.

The latest story, though, is just really weird. I don't even quite know what to say about it. It's headlined "Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith tangles with a quirk of Arkansas history" and it ties the presumptive Republican nominee to, um, something that happened 155 years ago. I'm not going to do the math but I'm almost certain that was before Romney was born.

The piece is written by Sandhya Somashekhar, with contributions from polling analyst Scott Clement. Here's the purple prose lede:

On the wildflower-studded slopes of the Ozarks, where memories run long and family ties run thick, a little-known and long-ago chapter of history still simmers.

Simmer down! Thankfully we get right into the facts. People in a wagon train from Arkansas were slaughtered by a Mormon militia in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The descendants of the victims still ponder it and have negative feelings about Mormons as a result of the violence their family encountered years ago:

There aren’t many places in America more likely to be suspicious of Mormonism -- and potentially more problematic for Mitt Romney, who is seeking to become the country’s first Mormon president. Not only do many here retain a personal antipathy toward the religion and its followers, but they also tend to be Christian evangelicals, many of whom view Mormonism as a cult.

And yet, there is scant evidence that Romney’s religion is making much difference in how voters here are thinking about the presidential election and whether they are willing to back the former Massachusetts governor.

And that, my friends, is the story in a nutshell.

We're told that in the town that launched the wagon train that got destroyed in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, voters are still more anti-Obama than anything else. So how is this potentially problematic for Romney again? Is this a real story? Or is it a hamfisted attempt to link Romney to a massacre? Or was it a legit story that was executed poorly?

I mean, Obama could lose his own primary in Arkansas next month and we're told that the state could be a problem for Romney? Come again? The reporter says it's impossible to know how Romney's religion will play in the November election (it's not impossible to predict how the media will play it, however). Some numbers are provided showing that a third of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Mormon church but then other numbers are provided showing that this doesn't necessarily translate to people's voting decisions.

Indeed, many here say their political values will be more important to their vote than religion or history. A rural and deeply religious community, many cite the cultural issues of abortion and gun rights as foremost on their minds. The weak economy has deepened their dislike of President Obama, who received less than 40 percent of the vote in Arkansas in 2008.

Still, Romney’s candidacy has prompted some soul-searching in this area, where a historical group estimates that more than half the residents can trace their ancestry back to the wagon train.

Are you wondering what I'm wondering? How this angle got chosen for a story about Mitt Romney's religion?

I mean, I'm truly interested in the massacre. So are many of my Mormon acquaintances. But I just don't see it as being a major campaign issue for Mitt Romney. Am I missing something? After we learn how little a role Romney's Mormonism will play in people's voting decisions, we learn much more about the massacre. It's all really interesting:

The Mountain Meadows Massacre remains one of the darkest episodes in the history of Mormonism. The church has apologized for the incident, and Romney addressed it during his 2007 presidential campaign in response to a reporter’s question.

“That was a terrible, awful act carried out by members of my faith,” he told the Associated Press. “There are bad people in any church, and it’s true of members of my church, too.”

Violence erupted between Mormons and non-Mormons elsewhere, such as Carthage, Ill., where Mormon founder Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob. And in Independence, Mo., site of the “Missouri Mormon War,” a conflict that resulted primarily in Mormon deaths.

Yes, we have to wait until midway through the story to learn that Mormons in the mid-19th century were also victims of violent mobs. No word on whether that 150-year-old reason is why they're not inclined to vote for Obama. Heck, that issue isn't even raised, for some reason. We learn more about how the descendants of the dead in northwestern Arkansas are still holding a grudge. And then back to more details about the massacre.

Then back to the northwestern Arkansas folks. Didya know that they teach their kids to hunt raccoons and relatives are referred to as 'kin'? Sounds so scary. We're told that they are so extremely Christian that even former Gov. Mike Huckabee calls them "Shiite Republicans."

I'm telling you, the story is just weird. After giving so many details about the massacre, the story kind of glides over the murder of an ancestor of Romney's named Parley Pratt. Oh no. I just realized that they're probably saving that juicy story for next week.

Here's how the story ends:

None of that history, though, including the massacre, may make much of a difference at the polls.

“That was 200 years ago,” Doug Steele, 45, a Republican insurance agent related to some of the massacre victims, said over a chicken sandwich at Granny’s Kitchen in Huntsville. “It’s been a long time. You can’t hate forever.”

When it comes to decades-old hit pieces, though, you can count on the Post, I guess.

Here's the thing. I think a discussion of all candidates' religious heritages and traditions is a good idea. Something tells me that by November, we'll know more about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than citizens in some portions of Utah do. And the story of Mormonism's birth and difficult early years in the Americas is totally legitimate. Just as stories on the doctrines and teachings President Barack Obama learned as a member of the United Church of Christ are appropriate.

But these stories are much better when they're less about a political horse race and more about an earnest attempt to illuminate the candidates and their views. I hope that as we get deeper into this campaign, we see more thoughtful journalism and less gotcha stuff. Or, at least, I hope the "gotcha" stuff they provide has more "gotcha" to it.

Please respect our Commenting Policy