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Two Cases of Journalistic Oops

Posted by: John Schroeder at 07:40 am, April 16th 2009     —    1 Comment »

Last week, Newsweek said it was “The End Of Christian America,” but this week they are sayingGod Is Back.” (HT: A Church for Starving Artists)  WOW! – a one week turn around – That’s amazing.

And while you are reading, here is a bit of a historical perspective.   The blog author linked here is reviewing a book, The Big Sort, about increasing partisanship in the nation.  I like this quote from the book:

Polarization did not come from politicians or the media. Indeed, according to Francia, “elites may be responding to the polarization that exists within the electorate rather than the other way around.” It’s just that in the past three decades, Republicans responded better than Democrats. (126-127)

Anyone who wants to do political action in this nation needs to study that very carefully.   Leadership may not be what you think it is.

What Do The New Media Find Interesting About Religion?

Lowell adds:  Man bites dog” will always attract a reporter.   This is a few days old now, but we had to say something about it.  It seems that Utah Valley University (a state institution, not to be confused with Brigham Young University) held a symposium called  ”Mormonism in the Public Mind.”   The Boston Globe’s religion reporter, Michael Paulson, was the keynote speaker, and the sessions available included these:

  • Richard Bushman, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling and Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism; 

  • Jana Riess, author of Mormonism for Dummies and American Pilgrimage and former Religion Book Review Editor for Publisher’s Weekly; 

  • Terryl Givens, Bostwick Professor of English at the University of Richmond and author of Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy and The Latter-day Saint Experience in America; 

  • Claudia Bushman; author of Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America, and Building the Kingdom: A History of Mormons in America

Of all the fascinating options, however, the session that attracted Paulson  was the one he called  ”What’s It Like to Be A Mormon Progressive?”  There he heard from Mormons who appear to be swimming upstream culturally and politically.

For example, a man named Morris Thurston spoke about his Prop 8 experience – not as a supporter of the measure, an activity for which Mormons are now either famous or infamous, depending on one’s view, but for opposing Prop 8 even though he is a Mormon.  What Mr. Thurston did, in essence, was write a rebuttal to a controversial and anonymous pro-Prop 8 piece that sought to list some negative consequences if Prop 8 failed.  

So why is that so interesting to the Boston Globe religion writer?  Well, Mr. Thurston billed himself on his written rebuttal as an “adjunct professor of law at Brigham Young University.”  Keep in mind that Mr. Thurston is a retired patent lawyer who taught (or perhaps still teaches) a patent law course at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.  He is not a legal expert on anything related to Prop 8 and is no more qualified to comment on that measure than anyone else.  But that BYU Law connection made him terribly interesting to the news media, and throughout the debate over Prop 8 we heard the measure’s opponents refer repeatedly to “the BYU professor of law who opposes Prop 8.”  One must admit, that description does catch one’s attention.  (Note:  Morris Thurston and I have corresponded.  He has been unfailingly kind and polite to me and I do not doubt his sincerity.  I suspect that when he wrote his rebuttal, he did not intend to become a center of controversy.  Mr. Thurston later issued a press release stating that his claim to a BYU connection appeared in an early draft of his rebuttal that was not authorized for publication.  I am not commenting on his actions, but on Michael Paulson’s journalistic instincts.)

Anyway, that’s how you attract news media attention to  religion story.  Morris Thurston gets press because he appeared to be “a man biting a dog.”  Anything that emphasizes whackiness or internal dissension among religious people will make you famous.  We saw this a lot during the Romney campaign.   Remember the bizarre interest in Governor Romney’s underwear?  As we’ve said many times, we don’t think the news media “gets” religion.  Mr. Paulson gives us further evidence.


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