Reporting on Mormonism: Here We Go Again

I sometimes think it must actually cause reporters physical pain to approach stories about the LDS Church objectively.  For the life of me, I can’t come up with any other reason that causes reporting on Mormonism to be so slanted.

Today’s example is a June 23 article in the Washington Post entitled “Founder of Mormon women’s movement excommunicated by all-male church council.”

The gist of the story is that the big bad Mormon men are silencing women’s voices and kicking out feminists by the dozens.  I can live with someone having and expressing that opinion.  But that’s exactly what it is:  An opinion dressed up as news reporting.

After framing this as a traditional civil rights issue by noting that Kate Kelly is a “human rights attorney” (strictly speaking, so am I), the author summarizes her story as follows: “Experts on Mormon history say Kelly, 33, who was convicted on the charge of apostasy for her public organizing with Ordain Women, is part of a wave of some of the highest-profile excommunications in decades.”  What is this “wave” of excommunications about which the reader should be so concerned?  Well, we finally discover in the last paragraph that the wave is barely a ripple:  The article cites one other person (who doesn’t get more ink in the story because he is a man and therefore doesn’t fit the whole persecution theme) who has been called before a disciplinary council but regarding whom no decision has been made.  In other words, it is a wave of one.

Farther along in the article, we get this remarkable sentence:  “Flake and regular Mormons agreed that the excommunication would likely chill public conversations around the topic of women’s ordination in Mormonism, a faith group that many Americans still associate with the word “cult.”  The Flake referred to is a historian who focuses on issues regarding the LDS Church and women (and, as near as I can tell from her biography, is LDS herself).   Who are the “regular Mormons” the author is talking about?  Once again, it is a party of one.  Aside from one other “historian,” she quotes one blogger sympathetic to Ordain Women who is critical of the decision to excommunicate Kelly.  Naturally, from that one voice we can conclude that 15 million other Mormons agree that this is going to “chill conversations.”  The scores of blogs I have read by LDS women who have no problem at all with Kelly’s excommunication?   Ignored completely.  Apparently Google doesn’t operate on an equal-opportunity basis at the Post.  (For what it is worth, I find it curious that the blogger who is quoted complains that he is being “silenced” as well.  So silenced that he gave an interview to the Washington Post.)

The second part of that sentence is more absurd.  Why the ubiquitous reference to Mormonism being a cult?  First, the statement is absolutely incorrect.  If one bothers to click on the link the author provides, the result is a Pew study following the Mitt Romney campaign regarding attitudes towards Mormons.  Among the many results of that study was a word-association question that demonstrated that 5% of the respondents said that they associate Mormons with the word “cult.”  The Post author generously describes this 5% as “many” Americans.  Interestingly, according to a Fox News poll, eight percent of Americans believe that Elvis is still alive.  So what this really tells us is that between 5 and 8 percent of Americans are complete knuckleheads.

The reference to Mormonism as a cult is merely a way to signal to the reader what he or she should conclude from the rest of the article:  That Mormons are a bunch of misogynist cult members keeping their women-folk barefoot and pregnant.  It’s a stereotype, and an unfair one at that.  But it demonstrates that this isn’t just a news story.  It’s a story with a purpose, and that purpose is to persuade the reader that there is something nefarious going on in Salt Lake City.

I really do try to take articles like these with a grain of Utah’s best salt, but there is only so much manipulation you can stomach.  The press desperately wants the Kelly excommunication to be a huge story that they can leverage to expose Mormonism as whatever-it-is-that-non-Mormons-think-we-are.  I get that.  But when you put an article like this under the light of scrutiny, you have to who it is that is running the scam.