Do Not Trust Journalists (A Mormon Example)

Do not trust journalists.

This is a hard thing for me to write: I am a journalist. I regularly write dispatches from abroad for various media outlets, and the occasional opinion commentary to boot.

Yet I have trouble trusting journalists. Especially those who are not transparent about how they developed their understanding of the issues they cover. Some journalism is very good; some is terrible. The worst of all are the journalists who try and use “journalism” as a cover for their ineptitude and ignorance.

I wrote the following piece in January 2018. I wrote it for private consumption. It was posted on my Facebook wall for my friends to read, but published nowhere else. It records my response to a controversy current in that month: the New York Times‘s coverage of the death of Thomas S. Monson, ordained prophet and seer of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. My membership in the church is no secret; I regularly refer to my experiences in the Church both on this blog and across my various social media accounts. That said, I don’t really participate in the “bloggernaccle” or (American) Mormon-centric twitter. The latter I see as particularly toxic, driven by dueling groups of badly misguided saints who do not represent the off-line norm. One group endlessly attacks Church leadership, apologizing constantly and loudly for the basic tenets of Church doctrine. This behavior is shameless and apostate. A second group has risen up in response to these people; adopting anonymous identities in the style of alt-right and 4Chan edgelords, they shitpost in “defense of the faith.” This modus operandi is rebellious and cowardly. That whole ecosystem tears faith, hope, and charity to tatters; I sorrow that it exists at all. I have no desire to get drawn into it.

Furthermore, I believe that any member who goes out of their way to publicly comment on gospel affairs—as opposed to privately share or testify their beliefs—has a basic responsibility to have their character, conduct, and rhetoric in right order before they grasp at that mantle. I don’t think I meet that standard, and thus do not use my platform for apologetics or broader commentary on the Church unless it is relevant to the other issues I write about.

This is why I never published the following piece on any other platform. I saved it in my archives, however, and today I stumbled upon it while searching for something else. Upon review I think it does touch on other issues I write about: in this case, pathologies that keep journalists from reporting true. I do not hesitate to call the New York Times coverage described here journalistic malpractice. The reporter in question knew nothing about what he was writing; instead he forced events and personalities into a narrow, pre-conceived frame that bore little relation to the reality before him. This is lazy, and when called out on it, both he and the Times doubled-down on their vices.

If you need a handy example to link to of why it is not wise to trust journalists, this will do.


Thomas Monson is the man who planted the Mormon flag behind the iron curtain. That the LDS Church was allowed into Eastern Europe at the height of the Cold War—that a Mormon temple was built in East Germany, that Mormon missionaries were allowed in, and that Mormon missionaries were allowed out—was the direct result of actions taken by this man.

There is a story here. Would the New York Times ever tell it?

The Times did not anticipate the controversy that would be caused by its tweet announcing the death of Thomas Monson, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Yet the tweet, the obituary it linked to, and the Times’ botched attempt to respond to the controversy it created reveal a great deal about the way American journalists and editors relate to the events they cover—especially when they cover religion. In response to the criticism it received the Times would return time and again to a stock phrase to defend their coverage: “We are journalists.” The phrase is telling. By tying its obituary so closely to journalistic ethic, the Times betrayed just how low the standards of American journalists have sunk. “We are journalists,” they say—and in so saying, declare that if journalists can force the subjects they cover into the narrow narrative straitjacket of the Trump-era culture wars, then the need to know concrete details and facts about the things they cover can be dispensed with altogether.

The tweet that began the dust-up reads as follows:

Thomas Monson, the president of the Mormon church who rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage, died Tuesday at 90.

The opening of the New York Times’s obituary for Monson echoed the themes of the tweet:

Facing vociferous demands to recognize same-sex marriage, and weathering demonstrations at church headquarters by Mormon women pleading for the right to be ordained as priests, Mr. Monson did not bend.

Responses to the Times were not long in waiting. Some asked why the Times framed their obituary on what Monson did not do as a leader of Mormon faith, instead of what he did do. The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins humorously imagined the same treatment being given to other members of America’s recently deceased: “Hugh Hefner, the Playboy founder who rebuffed demands that he stop publishing a misogynistic pornographic magazine and exploiting young women, died at 91.” Others pointed to the silliness of describing minor protests put on by small activist groups with dramatic claims that Monson “weather[ed] demonstrations [of] Mormon women pleading” for ordination to the lay priesthood, when polling data suggests that an overwhelmingly large majority of American Mormon women (90%) oppose female ordination, while the majority of Mormon women outside America—who are, in fact, the majority of Mormon women—have likely never heard of the protests at all. The 180,000 Mormons who signed a petition in protest against the New York Times, went further, accusing the Times of using the obituary and its “click-bait headline” as a “political statement against… the Church as a whole.”

These critiques vary in their harshness; all have their merits. But none quite get to the real problem with the Times’ coverage. To understand why, it is worth reviewing a few of facts about the leadership and legacy of Thomas Monson that the New York Times did not deign to print.

The Mormon hierarchy is led by a First Presidency of three men and a council of twelve Apostles, called, as Mormons believe, after the pattern of the primitive Christian Church. More than one hundred men have served in this office over the last two centuries. But Monson was special. Monson was the youngest apostle of the last hundred years, ordained to the office at the relatively young age of 36. When Monson was ordained in 1963 Mormonism was a small thing, mostly limited to the valleys and mesas of a sagebrush choked strip of land along the Rocky Mountains. By the time Monson died five decades later, the church he led stretched across continents, with more members outside of America than inside it. This story is the story of Thomas S. Monson.

Yet there is more. Monson was there when the decision to admit black men to the LDS lay priesthood was made. He was there when the first LDS temples were built in Africa, Asia, Polynesia, Australia, and Europe. Monson was not just a leader when the Church supported Prop 8 in 2008—he was a leader when the Church opposed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978. Monson led the committees that codified the doctrines taught in every Mormon meetinghouse across the Earth. He led the effort to translate Mormon texts into hundreds of tongues and dozens of scripts. He shepherded the creation of global standard for the length and content of the Church’s Sunday meetings and liturgy. Monson was part of the Presidency that drafted and released the Church’s first doctrinal proclamation on gender and the family—by far the Church’s most important doctrinal statement of the last four decades. He was part of the Presidency that introduced the Perpetual Education Fund—the loan program that has provided an education to 100,000 young (and mostly Mormon) men and women who grew up in grinding poverty. He was part of the Presidency that revolutionized the way that Church disaster response and aid worked, the Presidency that spearheaded Church aid to Syrian refugees, the Presidency who redefined the mission of the Church to include the words “caring for the poor and needy.”

If there is one man who could have claimed that he touched the lives and religious experience of all the Mormons on the Earth, even in simple ways that most do not realize or are barely aware of, it was this man. If there is one man who could take credit of restructuring the religion so that it might reach across the globe, it was this man. If there is anyone who can take credit for the reorienting the LDS Church to focus more on the temporal needs of its members and the practical business of caring for the needy and impoverished outside it, it was this man.

Will the New York Times ever tell this story—the story of a people, of a faith, of a life that has changed millions through decisions small and large made over the last sixty years?

They will not. But the political motive for the Times poor reporting is not convincing. If there are lacunae in the Times account of Monson’s life it is probably not because the reporters of the New York Times are full of malice (though they might be). The simplest explanation for why they did not tell the full story of Monson’s life and legacy is because they do not know it.

“We are journalists,” they say. Let’s be clear about what this really means. For the New York Times, the word “journalism” is a talisman—an excuse to be brandished when one must write down one’s ignorance and sell it to the public.

The Times’ obituary wrote only of the last four years because they have no knowledge of the world before it. They do not know that Thomas Monson stared down the dictators of Eastern Europe; they do not know that he dedicated temples across the ends of the Earth; they do not know anything he has done at all actually, except that reported in their own paper over the last year or so. There is so much they do not know. The trouble with the journalists of the New York Times (and even more so, the editors who write in defense of them) is that they are not even aware of what it is they do not know.

But this does not stop them from writing.

This is the colossal arrogance of ignorance. Nowhere is this ignorance more sharply displayed than in their treatment of their favorite theme: religious groups which do not meet the measure of their morals. The writers of the New York Times know a great deal about their own opinion of others’ moral fitness, of course, so their eagerness to discuss their judgments should not surprise. But oh, how much stronger these judgements might have been had they better knowledge of those they judge! If the global history of the Mormon people must be reduced to only what can be seen through the blinkered lens of America’s current social wars, then the journalists of the New York Times have—once again—missed the greater story.

Thomas Monson was not only the man who traveled across the world to raise the Mormon standard, not only the man who refocused the work of the Church on the poor and needy of the globe, not only the man who guided or presided over every major doctrinal development of the last half century—he was also a Boy Scout. Monson loved the Boy Scouts. He also loved the LDS Church. He was Scouting’s greatest advocate inside the Church, and the Church’s most powerful voice within Scouting. That the two organizations might fuse together and never thence fall asunder was one of his great life projects. He faced powerful countervailing forces: as the Church grew and globalized it realized that it did not really need the Boy Scouts of America. It is quite possible to teach a young man how to be a proper disciple of Christ without this odd American social club thrown in. But Tom Monson stuck to his guns and the LDS Church became the most influential interest group in the BSA. The Mormons—sometimes to other groups’ frustration—ruled the roost.

Until suddenly they didn’t. Against Mormon opposition came the decisions about gay scoutmasters, then transgender ones, and then women. And it fell to aging Thomas Monson, the man given highest honors scouting can provide, the man who led millions of Mormon boys through the program, the man who loved Scouting with all of his heart, the man who had spent a lifetime promoting its cause—it fell to that man to make the choice to separate the two things that he had loved and take the Church out of the program.

The Times relates Monson’s decision to take the Church out of the BSA, but not the years he spent fighting to keep them together. This was a missed opportunity. In the saga of Thomas Monson and the Mormon Boy Scouts, the entire Mormon-in-America story of the last four decades can be seen: the quest to reconcile Mormonism with America’s great institutions, the hope that Mormons could be finally accepted as good and worthy part of our body politic, the flexing of their new-found power in the social and political realms… and the sudden, painful realization that the day was too late, the successes all ephemeral, and that the rising tide of “social justice” would cast the Mormons onto the shoals of contempt from which they came. The tragedy of Thomas Monson, boy scout, is the tragedy of Mormon America in microcosm. His choice was the choice all American Mormons now face, or will soon: continue to cultivate the national prestige they crave and loyally stick to the social institutions they love (no matter where currents of culture may take them), or to withdraw, sacrificing what influence and prestige they have, and accept a new reality as a living hiss and byword in the eyes of those who read and write for the New York Times.

The Times might have told that story. They could have told the story of a people and their prophet. But they will not tell it. They cannot tell it. They do not know it.

That is the lesson of this entire saga. The New York Times defends themselves in the name of journalism. They are journalists they tell us, not religious propagandists. And with that declaration they reveal the truth: to be a journalist is to write, and to write, and seek credit for what you write even though you know nothing about those things which you write about.

EDIT 27/12/ 2019:  A reader helpfully points out that the opening sentence of the obituary now reads differently than it originally did (and than I quoted above). It also appears that the coverage of Monson’s life was lengthened somewhat following the controversy and the petition. Readers can have fun using Internet Archive to assess these changes. While I am gratified to see that the Times realized its original opening was inadequate, most of this still stands, and none of it should have ever had to be written.

If you found this harangue on the follies of the American media worth reading, you might also find the posts “The Time Has Come To Give The Lie,”  “On the Angst of American Journalists,” and “Vox Will Never Understand Islam… Or Any Religion, Really” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

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That said, I don't really participate in the "bloggernaccle" or (American) Mormon-centric twitter.

I had no idea this existed, and I live in Salt Lake City and am well-connected to active Mormons (not so active myself these days). Probably for the better – the fact that I'd never heard of it is a reminder of how ephemeral Twitter really is for most Americans.

He faced powerful countervailing forces: as the Church grew and globalized it realized that it did not really need the Boy Scouts of America. It is quite possible to teach a young man how to be a proper disciple of Christ without this odd American social club thrown in.

It's always been an odd fit. The church (at least in Utah) effectively duplicated most of what the Boy Scouts did anyways with the youth activities.

[This comes from a never-Mormon]

I agree that the NYT putting feminist criticism in the lead sentence was a distortion of perspective (the NYT’s pre-write of Monson’s obituary had obviously been in cold storage for decades – I expect some version of that clause was inserted in the 70s when the ERA was a huge story and it was edited down but never taken out). But putting the same-sex marriage issue in the lead sentence was correct – condemning homosexuality is rapidly becoming as toxic as the negro priesthood ban was and how LDS leadership is dealing with this challenge is the most interesting story about the church for an outsider.

I tend to cut reporters a good deal of slack. Covering thousands of subject areas is hard. By far the biggest and most common MSM error about the LDS church is elide the difference between 16 million names on membership roles and 16 million active members. Not boosterism or malice, just ignorance.

My guess is that a great deal of the "short memory" phenomenon is due to the way search engines, specifically Google, work. A lot of most journalism appears to be copying and pasting links, and given how search engines are structured, this rewards recency and attention-getting arguments/headlines. Want to write an article in 2019 on the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings? There is a wealth of articles from Buzzfeed, Slate, Salon, recent Netflix specials, and others from 2016 to this year for you to get your info from and link to in your article. These are all conveniently at the top of your search results. Nevermind that all these articles seem to cite each other, like in a closed loop, to bolster their arguments. Too much trouble to review actual articles, reports, video documentation, and interviews from 1991, and didn't Anita Hill make a public statement in the hearings a year ago, in 2018? That's enough of a "primary source". We also know a lot better tonight than people did in 1991, so why even take the effort to interview people who watched or were present at the hearings for their opinion on it? We can get the important gist of it from Wikipedia, backed up by a few Slate and Vox articles to explain what these facts mean.

There's a case to be made for Aylokab's comment and it certainly offered a valuable perspective. There are many, many in the US and elsewhere for which that would be the central issue about Monson.

There's also the tendency more generally to frontload whatever the faddish concern of the day is whenever considering a man or a period that covers much more and longer. That would come into play whether the issue is gay marriage or anything else.

Still, as a non-Mormon myself and also detached from the issue in question, I admit I also was stopped short by the NYT's choice. Stopped short, but not surprised.

The Cold War and all its permutations, Monson's role in which was far more influentual than just for the members of his church, was a long time ago for most.

Whereas today scarcely anything is more important than sexual orientation and gender identity. It's contending with climate change. There is nothing that is separate from it.

His choice was the choice all American Mormons now face, or will soon: continue to cultivate the national prestige they crave and loyally stick to the social institutions they love (no matter where currents of culture may take them), or to withdraw, sacrificing what influence and prestige they have, and accept a new reality as a living hiss and byword in the eyes of those who read and write for the New York Times.

Well you know what they say about how standing for Truth means enduring the hatred of the world.

The issue Taneer is analysing here is the problem with journalistic integrity, not Mormonism. I have a personal example that I think supports his view. I was interviewed by a Reuters journalist last year – a reputable organisation and a well-deserved journalist in this country. His specific agenda is to mainly focus on human rights abuses and trafficking. We explained to him that we'd anticipated all the potential issues and had systems in place to protect all our workers. We gave him access to any workers he wished to contact directly. He followed them up only to find that every one had nothing but good news to relate. As a result, nothing at all was written. And herein lies the systemic imbalance that Taneer is highlighting. Journalism is predisposed to report on scandal and bad news and reticent about good news when it undermines their established agendas. The problem actually goes further than the cycle of ignorance that Taneer discusses – it applies even when their ignorance is corrected.