Warren Jeffs

One of journalism's oddest assignments: 'Polygamy beat' at Salt Lake Tribune

One of journalism's oddest assignments: 'Polygamy beat' at Salt Lake Tribune

Mormon polygamists are notoriously tough to interview and photograph unless there’s some sort of prior trust relationship. That’s why I was amazed to see photos in the High Country News of an annual polygamist gathering in southeast Utah.

The photos by Shannon Mullane, which unfortunately are copyrighted and can’t be reproduced here, are really good. They are also very human; polygamists giving each other back rubs and hugs; going on rafting trips and having picnics. Access like that comes from hanging out with people and showing up year after year as they get to know you. (I had to do a lot of that while researching my book on Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handlers.)

What’s different about this piece is that the families portrayed here are dressed like normal people, not like the women wearing long, flowered dresses and braided hair swept up into puffy coifs who get shown on TV.

On a Saturday in July, the sun shone on the red-rock cliffs of southeastern Utah. Heidi Foster sat on the banks of the Colorado River, handing out fruit snacks to kids from polygamous families.

Foster, a plural wife from the suburbs of Salt Lake City, was among about 130 people on a river trip. Foster, who brought five of her own children, saw it as part of an important weekend where her kids could drop their guard and be themselves. “If someone asks, ‘How many moms do you have?’ you can tell them,” Foster said.

The rafting was one of the highlights of the annual Rock Rally, a five-day polygamous jamboree at Rockland Ranch, a polygamous community about 40 minutes south of Moab. The rally included hiking, zip-lining, rafting and a dance with a country music band from a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona line.

I looked at the byline, did some digging and realized that the writer, Nate Carlisle, has something called the polygamy beat with the Salt Lake Tribune. Never knew there was such an animal, but the Tribune has had the beat for years. Carlisle took it on in 2006.

It’s a very complex assignment with the need for deep sources.

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Gaps abound in articles on new female mayor in polygamous Mormon town

Gaps abound in articles on new female mayor in polygamous Mormon town

The story of how a polygamous sect rules the sister towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., has fascinated journalists and law enforcement for years.

I’ve previously written about the sect for GetReligion here. The latest news has been how an influx of new residents into the area is slowly loosening the FLDS’ grip.

One’s worst enemies are always from within, as the Associated Press told us last week. It turns out that Hildale’s new mayor, who is stirring up things, knows the ins and outs of the sect only too well.  

The new mayor of a mostly polygamous town on the Utah-Arizona border is finishing off a complete overhaul of municipal staff and boards after mass resignations when she took office in January to become the first woman and first non-member of the polygamous sect to hold the seat.
Six of the seven Hildale, Utah, town workers quit after Mayor Donia Jessop was elected and took charge of the local government run by the sect for more than a century. They were joined by nine members of various town boards, including utility board chairman Jacob N. Jessop. All were members of the sect, the mayor said.
Jacob Jessop said his religious beliefs prevented him from working for a woman and with people who are not sect members, according to resignation letters obtained Thursday by The Associated Press through a public records request. The mayor’s husband is distantly related to Jessop in the town of about 3,000 people where many have that last name.

Most are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of Mormonism that continues polygamy more than a century after mainstream Mormons ceased doing so.

What’s really interesting is the nature of the new mayor herself:

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Are polygamous Mormons part of Western narrative? The High Country News thinks so

Are polygamous Mormons part of Western narrative? The High Country News thinks so

The High Country News (HCN), a 30,000-circ. environmental journal based in western Colorado, usually reports on investigations within the National Park Service, wind energy projects in Montana, fish die-offs in Colorado and similar regional stories, but rarely anything to do with religion. I managed to find one piece in there last fall about wild wolves and morality but that was about it.

But the magazine does have a villain -- the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which occupies land on the Utah-Arizona border smack in the middle of the high desert country that HCN calls its backyard. And whenever HCN goes after them, they wade into a mix of police and religion reporting.

Thus, see their latest on how corruption among city officials in that region has stymied the FBI from catching FLDS leaders who were raping children in the name of their religion.

This is a long passage, but, in a way, it points to one of the journalistic challenges linked to these reports.

In January 2006, more than 3,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a polygamist offshoot of the Mormon Church, gathered inside their huge white meetinghouse in Colorado City, Arizona, for a regular Saturday work project service. Outside, unknown to the congregants, a handful of FBI agents were quietly approaching. They wanted to question 31 people about the whereabouts of Warren Jeffs, the church’s former “president and prophet,” who was on the run for performing a wedding involving an underage girl.
Within five minutes, just as a FLDS member named Jim Allred began the first prayer, FBI agents entered the building.

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