The Mormon Representatives in the News

Despite the title, this isn’t about current or past political representatives in Washington D.C. That would be an interesting topic to pursue, but not here. When a reporter does a story they cannot make it up from their heads. That isn’t to say reporters don’t pontificate and call it news. In fact, today it is hard to tell the difference between fact and commentary, much less comedy, when listening to the news. Another topic for future consideration. Reporters must search out and interview eyewitnesses or experts to answer questions and provide insights into daily events. This is no less the case with stories dealing with Mormons, and there are a few voices that continually get printed.

Essentially reporters are lazy. They always have been, with few exceptions. It isn’t always the fault of the reporter or the business as a whole. A story needs to be told by a deadline as expected by editors and readers. Time is short between idea or event and printing. Of course, that means short cuts with the famous “Rolodex” sitting on the computer desk. The reality is one of the few mirrors of stereotypes. The list of names might be long or short depending on topic or experience, but they will be alphabetical.

Reading the news it becomes clear that Mormonism has a short list tucked away for references. The same names appear for quotations in diverse newspapers. There might be an unused name to help with specific topics, but essentially there are no surprises. The smaller the newspaper the less familiar quoted references become, because they don’t have the money or means to contact the power voices. Chances are they still go back to a few of the same people on other stories if tracked.

Focusing on the bigger newspapers, who are the “go to” Mormon representatives that readers can find in the rags? Not all of them have been Mormon, as some non-Mormons are very knowledgeable without over bias. On the other hand, there are Mormons used that can be considered poor choices.

The Players

Michael Otterson is the managing editor of Public Affairs of the LDS Church, and therefore a good start for any substantial Mormon related story. He has often written responses to negative portrayals and been rightfully quoted for official positions. Perhaps he is best known for his Washington Post “On Faith” blog writings. As a convert from England, he started working as PR representative there and continued in Australia before getting assigned to represent the entire Church.

Many articles have quoted the esteemed Richard L. Bushman, American History emeritus at Columbia University, for his extensive knowledge. He seems trusted to both represent Mormonism and do so without undue bias. The media trusts academics far more than they do even those whose job it is to relate information to them. It is almost like he has become a de-facto PR personality regardless of what he or the LDS Church intended. That isn’t too bad because he is a really solid source. He is perhaps most famous for the Joseph Smith biography Rough Stone Rolling that got him noticed in the first place.

Jeff Benedict is one of the more interesting names to come up repeatedly in articles. He teaches writing and mass media at Southern Virginia University, and also contributes Sports Illustrated online articles. Although having written books on a variety of subjects, his The Mormon Way of Doing Business caught the most interest. Whenever the topic of Mormons and business come up, chances are a quote or insight from him will surely appear.

The most controversial contact on Mormon issues has been John P. Dehlin, the self-proclaimed voice of the bloggernacle. Quotes from him started showing up during the initial days of the equally controversial Mormon based Broadway play. His prominence in the news seems to have ended as quickly as it had began. It is not clear if he wishes to remain a member of the LDS Church, although he no longer attends. Using him to represent the viewpoint of Mormons is problematic considering his extreme unorthodoxy and schismatic tendencies.

A few times Kathleen Flake, associate professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University, has been quoted as an expert. There aren’t a lot of articles to point toward, but she has been interviewed about the daily meaning of theological teachings. She came into notice after publishing her book The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle about the controversy of allowing Senator Reed Smoot hold U.S. national office.

Jan Shipps may not be a Mormon, but no list of who the Press uses as representatives can be complete without her. She has been quoted and relied on for Mormon information longer than any other personality. She is professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and author of Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition considered by many to be essential reading. Once she is gone it will be hard to say who might taker her place, as Richard L. Bushman is not much younger. What won’t be missed is her tendency to talk like an anthropologist rather than simple observer.

Names for Consideration

The first person that a reporter should become familiar with is Marlin K. Jensen, both LDS General Authority and Church Historian and Recorder. Why he hasn’t been someone interviewed for articles is a big question mark, particularly considering his knowledge and resources. He could easily help with insights into articles about the history of the LDS Church; perhaps more from the official viewpoint the even the capable Bushman. He might be too busy or the leadership doesn’t want that to be his public responsibility, but he would still be worth having as a contact.

Technically Terryl L. Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, has been quoted in stories. He hasn’t been used enough. Best known for his book By the Hand of Mormon, he is equally as articulate and knowledgeable as Bushman and yet younger. There is no reason why reporters should skip over this respectable talent when wanting to understand Mormon viewpoints.

Who else would be a good addition to a “Rolodex” list for reporters? Is there anyone left out that appears consistently in the news as sources? Finally, what attributes would you like in a Mormon representative to the Press and therefore the public?

9 thoughts on “The Mormon Representatives in the News

  1. jettboy, I am curious about your characterization of John Dehlin as “the self-proclaimed voice of the bloggernacle”. It surprises me because as far as I know John is unhappy with the bloggernacle and has pretty much abandoned it.

    I performed a quick google search for the quote, but nothing turned up.

  2. I don’t like him. I’m not going to back my claims as they are my perceptions of him, no matter if he doesn’t claim it now. This discussion is bigger than that one little man with a big mouth.

  3. That is all fine and good, you can like or dislike anybody you want, and you are entitled to your perceptions, such as they are. But if you are going to state that somebody is the self-proclaimed something or other, you can reasonably expect to be asked to provide a citation where that person actually did the self-proclaiming. This is Journalism 101, and should be an obvious point in a blog post about which journalists we can trust.

  4. I will have you start with The Game-changer titled blog post. As it says “he has created sites, podcasts, forums, and blogs to reach gays, feminists, intellectuals, doubters, the mentally ill, and even the disaffected.” Then read both links to his ideas for 2011 plans. Behind his words are basically that he doesn’t like the bloggernacle, but he sure want to take it over.

  5. Your link doesn’t work, but what you quoted doesn’t lead me to believe Dehlin has proclaimed himself the spokesperson for the bloggernacle.

    Still, no jettboy post would be complete without him judging at least one Mormon, or group of Mormons, not quite good enough.

  6. I think Elder Jensen is not used simply because he IS a General Authority. It would place his statements as too authoritative.

    I think there are several from FAIR/Maxwell Institute that could be used. Daniel C Peterson definitely comes to mind, and is used occasionally by national media. Kathleen Flake is also eminently qualified for such issues.

  7. “He is perhaps most famous for the Joseph Smith biography Rough Stone Rolling that got him noticed in the first place.”

    Hmm. Prior to publishing RSR in 2005, Richard Bushman had taught at 5 fairly prestigious universities, published 7 books (including his 1984 biography of JS, JS and the Beginnings of Mormonism), won the 1968 Bancroft Prize for his first published book, From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765, had organized and led an annual summer seminar with several of the brightest young minds studying Mormon history for nearly a decade, served as a general editor for the Joseph Smith Papers Project, and been featured in documentaries and quoted in and interviewed for articles on various aspects of both American and Mormon history.

    There’s no doubt that his more recent biography of JS increased his public visibility, but to suggest that he was “noticed in the first place” only after publishing RSR is incorrect. And my point isn’t just to take a shot at you, Jettboy. I think that Bushman’s larger career is crucial to understanding the credibility he rightly maintains from the academy, secular media, and also Mormons and Mormon church leaders. Because he established a reputation as an intelligent, honest, and thoughtful historian, as well as a committed Latter-day Saint, his 2005 biography of JS commanded some sort of respect (or at least serious consideration) from nearly all sides. His interviews and commentary on contemporary Mormonism have received similar respect for the same reason.

    Two other individuals who have established themselves as reliable and knowledgeable commentators on Mormonism are Laurie Maffly-Kipp (professor of Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and author of the introduction to Penguin Classics’ edition of the Book of Mormon) and Sarah Gordon (professor of History and Law at UPenn and author of The Mormon Question).

  8. I agree with you Christopher about Bushman. I have enjoyed his work for a number of years. That he wasn’t quoted as an authority on Mormonism in news print until after the Joseph Smith biography can be argued as more than coincidental. It seems to be when reporters took notice.

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