Spring 2002, Vol. 5, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2002

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in this issue

The Media vs. the Church

The Scandal of Secrecy

The Cardinal and the Globe

The Indispensable Source

Harry and the Evangelicals

Returning to Normalcy


The Mormons Score a 9.6
by Jan Shipps

If stereotypes were glass, the ice-covered floor of the stadium where the closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics were held would have been littered with shards. Shattered were the images of Mormonism as a peculiar faith tradition ensconced in the intermountain region of the American West, and of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as spooky clean-cut zealots whose main goal is making converts.

Rather than being pestered to convert to their faith, most visitors to Salt Lake City encountered Latter-day Saints who were simply doing their best to be, as the church put it, "gracious hosts." Youthful and attractive "lady missionaries" were eager to answer religious questions, but only on historic Temple Square. Elsewhere the Saints were just there to be helpful and, no less significantly, to join in the fun.

And at the end of the day, the print and electronic coverage of Mormonism accompanying the story of the international festival of sport created a new picture of the LDS Church and its members that is unlikely to be ephemeral.

This splintering of the old Mormon stereotypes occurred because the leaders of the Latter-day Saints took advantage of the Olympics to introduce modern Mormonism to the world. But as successful as Olympic coverage turned out to be for the Saints, it does not follow that the church was the animating factor behind getting the games for Salt Lake City.

Success in getting the Olympics had been devoutly wished by the state’s burgeoning tourist industry because holding the games in Utah would be the best possible way to advertise the area as a perfect natural habitat for devotees of winter sports. Getting the games would, it was hoped, generate an improved airport, a better ground transportation system, and new hotels and restaurants. City boosters also believed that placing the spotlight on Salt Lake City would reveal an "Intermountain Silicon Valley"—a city of the future, not the past.

In a word, those who led the charge to get the games—Mormons and non-Mormons alike—seemed interested in putting Salt Lake City on the map as something other than the center place of Mormonism.

Did the "Brethren" who preside over the church recognize this? In April 1997 I asked church President Gordon B. Hinckley whether the LDS Church had actively supported attempts to get the Olympic bid for Salt Lake City. He said that the church hierarchy had been divided on the issue, though he would not tell me who opposed the bid or why they did so. No doubt some worried that the Olympics would divert the church from its three-fold mission of preserving the Saints, redeeming the dead (through proxy ordinances in Mormon temples), and carrying the gospel to the world.

Moreover, the inescapable international media attention would be sure to provide unwelcome reminders of the church’s 19th century practice of plural marriage, as well as such other perennial media favorites as the Mountain Meadows Massacre (when a group of Indians and Mormon pioneers slaughtered all the adults in an Arkansas wagon train) and the church’s reputed fabulous wealth.

Still, after gifts and services to International Olympic Committee officials that amounted to bribery, Salt Lake City received the nod. And the church followed up with a carefully planned and orchestrated public relations campaign that began with distribution of miniature faux leather briefcases with the LDS Olympic logo stamped on them in gold to 3,600 journalists around the globe. Inside was an extensive list of "great story ideas" about Mormonism—the church’s "worldwide humanitarian service," "health code helps Mormons live longer," "a day in the life of a missionary," and so on.

Next came a handsome four-color "Glimpses of Utah" calendar in which nine of the 15 images and well over half the accompanying text dealt with Mormon themes. Then there was an easy-to-use link from the church’s home page ( to all the resources a reporter could want in order to do stories about the Latter-day Saints and their church—including downloadable high-resolution photographs and TV and radio sound clips about virtually every aspect of Mormonism. (The link also served as a rapid-response mechanism for Public Affairs staff to correct any journalistic errors and to challenge negative depictions of Mormonism and its role in Utah’s culture.)

In mid-January 2002 Public Affairs opened an LDS News Resource Center staffed by specialists assisted by 350 volunteers. No fewer than 1,324 accredited reporters registered, gaining access to the Center’s rich store of information—and to all the croissants, fruit, and other snack foods they could consume.

During the 12 months prior to the games, the church honed its message down to two main points: Mormonism is "Christian but different"; and as a practical religion specializing in health, longevity, and the quality of family relationships, it makes people happy.

There is no question that the church’s PR effort shaped the way Mormonism was covered in the tens of thousands of stories about the Olympic games filed worldwide between early December and the end of February. According to Michael Otterson, the LDS Director of Media Relations who became the church’s primary spokesperson during the games, an overwhelming majority—perhaps 95 percent—of the stories featuring Mormonism and/or the LDS Church were either "positive or fair." He could, he told me in March, "count on the fingers of both hands" the truly negative articles published in English language newspapers.

A good place to begin the reckoning of media coverage of the Olympics’ "Mormon angle" is the rivalry between Salt Lake City’s two daily newspapers, the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune.

Founded in 1850 as an official organ of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the News, an afternoon paper, turned into a more or less standard daily in the early 20th century. The church, which still controls it indirectly through a self-perpetuating board, maintains the ultimate say about content as well as editorial policy. For its part, the Tribune, founded by Mormon dissidents in 1870, has always represented itself as an independent voice—independent, that is, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Until well into the 1930s, the LDS church hierarchy and many church members considered the Tribune an anti-Mormon rag.

The mid-20th century saw considerable mellowing of the Tribune’s opposition to the activities of Mormon leaders and what its earlier editors often described as the Saints’ control of the city and state. The new cordiality, combined with pressure to cut costs, led in 1952 to a joint operating agreement with the News. Since then the two papers have shared advertising, circulation, promotion, and printing facilities while remaining editorially and financially independent of each other.

The comity came to an end in the mid-1990s, when the News’ publishers started to consider challenging the Tribune’s dominant position as a morning paper and the Tribune’s ownership changed hands. When Salt Lake City was chosen to host the 2002 games, the Tribune, harking back to its anti-Mormon past, became editorially skeptical about the church’s role.

The Tribune’s opening salvo came on an issue peripherally related to the Olympics: the city council’s narrow vote along religious lines to approve the church’s offer to buy a block of Main Street between Temple Square and its Joseph Smith Building where it would construct a plaza that would be open to all. Picking up on the fact that neither tobacco nor alcohol would be permitted on what was supposed to be public space, the Tribune argued that the sale undermined church-state separation. The closing of Main Street was interpreted as an effort to unfairly position the church as the tourist center of a metropolis that, with an equal population of Mormons and non-Mormons, was increasingly diverse.

A similar controversy arose several years later, when the paper protested the decision to locate the Medals Plaza in a direct visual line with the towers of the Salt Lake Mormon Temple—thereby giving the church a visual boost every time a medal ceremony was shown on TV.

Between the two plaza disputes, the Tribune took up so many other causes that it was hard not to conclude that the paper was convinced the church was involved in a conspiracy to control the games. The paper gave continuous attention, for example, to non-Mormon concerns that Utah’s restrictive liquor laws would undermine the games’ success—an issue that became a staple of national Olympic coverage.

A critical moment in media coverage came in November 1998 when stories that local organizers had spent huge sums of money to secure the games for Salt Lake City started circulating. The massive international news frenzy that followed was a signal embarrassment for the city and the state.

But from the standpoint of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the most significant outcome was that—especially within the United States—the bribery story was a Salt Lake City story rather than a Mormon one. To be sure, the men involved were Latter-day Saints. But they were not acting as agents for the church.

Moreover, while it turned out that church-owned corporations had joined with other local business entities to support the bid financially, not until a week before the scandal broke had President Hinckley started encouraging church members to volunteer their services during the games. Accordingly it was easier for the church to move forward with its publicity campaign without being defensive regarding how the invitation was secured for the city.

On February 8, 2001, USA Today published "One Year to Go" as its front-page centerpiece. With the conspicuous exception of polygamy, this story (along with sidebars on the opening ceremonies and NBC’s plans for its television coverage) made mention of virtually every issue about Mormonism that would be visited by the media in the year to come. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor published their own countdown stories, and news outlets big and small marked the occasion with wire copy and radio roundups.

During the spring and summer, reasonably sound descriptions of Mormonism and the Utah scene were published in a variety of major metropolitan dailies. Among these, the Baltimore Sun and the Boston Globe both addressed the question of whether the games would be the "Molympics."

The answer was no, according to Mitt Romney, the successful entrepreneur and sometime politician who was summoned from Boston to serve as president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee in the wake of the bribery revelations. Asked to clean up the mess, raise millions and millions of dollars, and get everything ready for the games, he needed all the help he could get.

Yet too much help from the LDS Church could have made it appear that the Brethren were the ones who were really making all the key decisions (and that could have dried up other monies). As the opening came closer, church spokespeople echoed Romney’s declaration that while the church was willing to assist, it would only do so "upon request."

Coincidentally or otherwise, the Brethren seized the moment to lay down the church’s position about nomenclature. After an interview with Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, New York Times religion reporter Gustav Niebuhr reported that the church would be advising journalists and reminding its own members that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should not be called the "Mormon Church." Neither should it be called the "LDS Church."

If, in their stories, writers needed to make a second reference, it should be to "The Church" (note the upper-case letters) or "The Church of Jesus Christ." This renewed emphasis on the full name of the church and the effort to end the use of "Mormon Church" expressed the church’s concern that it be understood as a Christian church.

Much of the subsequent coverage failed to convey both dimensions of the "Christian but different" story. Either such great stress was placed on the church’s emphasis on family values that it was pictured as a merely idiosyncratic form of Protestantism that had made its way into the American mainstream. Or else reporters focused so much on distinctive Mormon beliefs and worship practices that it seemed too different to really be Christian. Only a handful of newspaper accounts and one or two in-depth stories in widely circulated newsmagazines managed to keep both balls in the air.

Kenneth L. Woodward’s August 10 cover story in Newsweek was notably successful in conveying the church’s own presentation of exactly how it is Christian and why it differs so dramatically from all other forms of Christianity. Surprisingly for a cover story, however, Woodward’s narrative contained not a single quotable observation from a Mormon "general authority." Notwithstanding the church’s care and feeding of journalists in the pre-Olympic period, Public Affairs could not find a single member of the First Presidency or Council of the 12 willing to talk to Woodward during the week he spent in Salt Lake City.

Why? Even though everyone knew that this venerable religion writer was preparing a major article on the church for a highly visible news venue, these 15 men have long memories. None of them has been particularly pleased with what Woodward has written about the Saints from time to time for over a quarter of a century. That may explain why, despite the fact that Woodward got most everything right, Public Affairs leapt into action to correct a few minor inaccuracies.

By contrast, there was no corrective response at all to Lawrence Wright’s lengthy New Yorker article, even though the message it conveyed was that today’s Latter-day Saints are caught in such an intellectual and spiritual time warp that Mormonism is not merely different but entirely other. One obvious reason for the lack of any official LDS rejoinder is that Wright’s article was a failed Mormon media coup about which Public Affairs seems to have decided the less said the better.

Here is what happened. Making plans to get the Mormon story out, someone at Edelman Public Relations in New York City—a firm that has a continuing contractual relationship with the LDS Church—had the bright idea of approaching the New Yorker and suggesting a profile of President Hinckley. (In view of his interviews with Mike Wallace and Larry King, Hinckley has become something of a media personality.)

This idea was approved, the magazine was "sold," and Wright took the assignment very seriously. Reading practically everything about Mormonism he could get his hands on and spending a month in Utah doing interviews, he expanded his focus from the church president and contemporary Mormon-ism to the history of the faith tradition and the peculiar culture that it spawned.

Scheduled to appear last fall, the article was delayed for months by the events of September 11 and appeared, on the eve of the games, at half its original length. As published, it concentrated so much on Mountain Meadows, polygamy, and the many ways in which this faith is a radical departure from traditional Christianity that it failed to get around to making much sense of modern Mormonism. Aside from a short section on Hinckley early in the piece, the focus on today’s church and its members was squeezed into a single page at the end.

With the opening of the games themselves, the news about the Latter-day Saints was that they were not news. Their low profile, their refusal to mount a proselytizing crusade, and their willingness even to laugh at themselves generated articles that were interesting even to long-time observers of Mormonism, and surely a pleasure for Latter-day Saints to read.

The journalists who went to Utah expecting an insular and repressive culture found instead a reasonably ordinary American cultural scene that was made more engaging because of the celebratory milieu, incredible mountain scenery, and perfect weather for Winter games. Curiously, the church’s multi-media extravaganza that was presented in the astonishing new 21,000-seat Conference Center was almost entirely ignored. The journalists focused instead on everyday encounters with friendly and helpful members of the church.

A handful of over-the-top stories were published—for example, the London Daily Mail’s "Sex, God, and Skis: Welcome to Polygamy City." A Woody Paige column in the Denver Post claiming that jello-eating Salt Lake City had "royally screwed up the Olympics" was so outrageous that Paige felt obliged to write a follow-up column apologizing to Mormons, Utahans, and anyone else angered by a "satire that did not work."

But over all, little ink was devoted to polygamy, to a teetotal people who did not know how to have fun, to a Mormon conspiracy to take over the games. Stereotypes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members were revised. But whether the Olympics did much to change the cultural situation in central Utah is a more complicated issue.

As a result of being in the media spotlight—and thanks in no small measure to the Tribune’s renewed hostility to the LDS Church—longstanding tensions between Mormons and non-Mormons came to the fore dramatically in the year before the Olympics. Trying to bridge the divide, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson—who was reared as a Mormon but no longer considers himself one—took the initiative in creating an "Alliance for Unity" that brought LDS leaders together with leaders of the non-Mormon community. The goal of this effort, in the words of Alliance for Unity co-founder (and Mormon) John Huntsman, was "to start healing the wounds of the state."

President Hinckley warned the Saints not to adopt "holier than thou" attitudes and other LDS leaders encouraged church members to stop calling the members of other faith groups non-Mormons, thereby defining by negation rather than affirmation. Apostle Oaks weighed in, saying that "neighbors" was the term he endorsed. And indeed, during the period of the games, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proved, as one observer said, that it could "do the pluralism thing."

Now that the Olympics are over, will the effort to heal the wounds go forward? Or will the cultural and religious stresses and strains be pushed back beneath the surface?

A Feb. 25, 2002 story in the New York Times was headed "Utah’s Changes May Be as Fleeting as Olympic Glory." Utahans should devoutly hope it won’t be so.

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