More strange word games: Mormon leader dies, and Reuters fixates on same-sex marriage

L. Tom Perry died on Saturday. He opposed gay marriage.

And oh, yeah, he was a very important Mormon leader, as in for many decades.

OK, maybe that's a touch too harsh. But dang, look at the Reuters headline on Saturday: "Mormon leader L. Tom Perry dies at 92, opposed same-sex marriage."

What about Perry's rank as one of the top 15 leaders in a church of 15 million members? Or his leadership style, or his service as a U.S. Marine? All that seems less important to the astonishingly brief, seven-paragraph obit.

The overloaded lede throws in a lot of stuff, wire style: "Mormon leader L. Tom Perry, the oldest member of the faith's highest governing body and who spoke against same-sex marriage, died from cancer on Saturday at age 92, the church said." Reuters adds other li'l details: that Perry served a top Mormon spot for four decades, met President Obama in April, and was widowed and married again.

But then the story narrows to this:

Perry was present when Utah lawmakers and Mormon leaders introduced a landmark bill in March barring discrimination against gays and transgender people while protecting the rights of religious groups and individuals.
But he drew criticism from gay rights advocates in April when he told a church gathering in Salt Lake City that he opposed "counterfeit and alternative lifestyles."

Eh? "Counterfeit and alternative lifestyles"? We don’t get enough info to judge that phrase. Brevity isn't always the soul of wit, you know. Other media, as we'll see, did explain what Perry meant.

How to explain the Reuters gaffe? Maybe it's just from too much work and too-short deadlines. Maybe it's just a cut-crazy editor. Or maybe it's just coloring by the numbers, with gay news holding a high number.

We've been seeing some strange word games of this story lately. Remember this one (and the podcast here) from our own Bobby Ross, Jr.?

Sort of like when the Washington Post called Chick-fil-A a  "cult favorite." And no, I'm not exaggerating:

But KFC's biggest loss so far has been in its Cersei-Margaery-style battle with Chick-fil-A, its younger Southern rival. After eclipsing KFC in 2012, the cult favorite known for its boneless chicken sandwiches ran with the prize, making $1 billion more in the U.S. than KFC did last year.

That was enough to cheese off a GetReligion reader: "To me, a 'cult favorite' has a small, but dedicated following -- not the right term for the #1 seller. Are they using 'cult' here to call to mind the religious perspective of the Cathy family? If so, I call a minor foul."

Maybe so, maybe not. Possibly WaPo, like Reuters, was just writing a cliché on autopilot. But again, we don’t get enough info to decide. The story mentions Chick-fil-A only twice, without unpacking the "cult" reference.

But back to the Perry situation. Reuters didn't have to balloon the obit to the exhausting 2,900 words of the version in the Mormon Church-owned Deseret News. Reuters could have gotten by with the tidier 400 words in the NBC News obit.

From NBC, we learn that Perry served as a U.S. Marine after World War II, that he earned a degree in finance from Utah State University, and that he "went on to become the president and treasurer of various retail companies, according to the church." (That would be the elaborate Mormon Newsroom, a trove of info and photos on Perry's life. I did the same for a video and picture, of course.)

The Associated Press ran a slightly longer, 600-word Perry obit, which was used by ABC News, the New York Times and elsewhere. AP joins NBC in talking about Perry's "affability" and optimism, softening the rigid image of a gay rights opponent.

AP helpfully spells out that Perry was a "member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a group modeled after Jesus Christ's apostles that serves under the church president and his two counselors." And it says the church regards its president, Thomas S. Monson, as a prophet whose decisions are guided by God.

Neither AP nor NBC lead with opposition to gays, as Reuters did. AP adds a couple of paragraphs that match Reuters' wording closely. NBC doesn't even mention it. Maybe they, ahem, had more time than Reuters?

But the Salt Lake Tribune does bring up the flap -- with three concise paragraphs that, at last, give us a context to understand Perry's remarks:

In April, Perry offered what would be his final General Conference address, giving a spirited and headline-grabbing defense of "traditional families."
He said humankind is best served when legally married mothers and fathers rear their children together, and warned against the dangers of "counterfeit and alternative lifestyles."
"Strong traditional families are not only the basic units of a stable society, a stable economy and a stable culture of values," Perry said, "but ... they are also the basic units of eternity, and of the kingdom and government of God."

The story says many LGBT activists then turned against Perry, feeling he was disparaging their families. But it also reports praise from Sen. Jim Dabakis, the only openly gay member of the Utah legislature, for Perry's "courageous" help with the gay-rights law.

Oh, and there's this handy paragraph:

The three members of the LDS Church's governing First Presidency along with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — of which Perry was the second-ranking member behind 90-year-old Boyd K. Packer — make up the faith's top two ruling councils.

Into this 600 words, veteran Godbeat writer Peggy Fletcher Stack packs details about Perry's upbeat nature, his physical fitness, and his executive jobs in several department stores.

The pros make it look so easy. Especially when they look at someone through more than the pinhole of a single issue.

Video and thumbnail photo on L. Tom Perry, from

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