“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
— William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar,” Act 3, Scene II
“Journalism,” according to a 19th century British journalist you never heard of, “largely consists of saying ‘Lord Jones is Dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”
G.K. Chesterton’s aphorism is appropriate for one of this week’s big media kerfuffles, the widespread furor over the obituary of the late Mormon President Thomas S. Monson as published in the newspaper widely thought to be the best at obituaries, The New York Times.
Some would call the obit a blot on The Times’ reputation. Actually, it is more like a giant ink blot test. One that says more about the observer, the reader, than about the essay itself.
The Times’ take on Monson’s life begins with one of those multi-clause constructions often found in old-style journalism:
“Thomas S. Monson, who as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2008 enlarged the ranks of female missionaries, but rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage, died on Tuesday at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 90.”
OK. Problem one. The right way to spell it is “The Church of ...” Capitalized “The.” You know, like, oh, “The New York Times.” (At least they got the “Latter-day” part right.)
The big issue for many folks comes after the second comma. And it is about more than a sentence that is almost impossible to diagram. After giving Monson credit for adding more female missionaries, it jumps right into the biggest religious, social and political controversies of his tenure — the role of women within the church and same-sex marriage for everyone.
It sounds like the Onion-style lead written by someone — I can’t remember or google who — probably during all the fuss about Bill Clinton’s messing around.
“LONDON (June 6, 1944) — Trying to divert attention from persistent reports that he has been having an affair with his chauffeur, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower this morning announced the beginning of largest military operation in human history.”
Anyway, a lot of Mormons didn’t like the obit. An online petition was fired up and quickly attracted nearly 200,000 signatures. Journalists such as distinguished BYU alum McKay Coppins and my opposite number at the Deseret News, Hal Boyd, writing in the National Review, took the Paper of Record to task for an unnecessarily critical approach. The Times itself published a serious internal discussion about how the matter was handled and allowed as how some people might have been bothered by the newsy, rather than more respectful, approach taken.
Here, I think, is the takeaway that everyone seems to be missing.
The statements in the obituary about the church’s actions and positions about marriage equality and the role of women are flatly true. Nobody is even trying to say they aren’t. What many good people don’t like is how quickly those matters were injected into the discussion, giving them much more prominence than, say, Monson’s decision to open up more church records, or the more general facts about the LDS Church’s worldwide charitable activities, its good relations with other religions and the personal admiration Monson engendered in a great many people, LDS and otherwise.
And why would anyone object to those most controversial — and thus, by definition, most newsworthy — aspects of church policy and Monson’s presidency being so highlighted? Because they are not the things about the church that they are most proud of. They’d rather not talk about it. They’s may even prefer that those bits of church history be interred with the president’s bones.
If they were fully behind the church’s efforts to fight same-sex marriage, if they were altogether comfortable with the way the church treats its female members, then The Times obit wouldn’t be a problem for these same Mormons. They’d wear it, like the contempt the East Coast Media may hold for them, like a badge of honor.
But many aren’t.
If these same Mormons really care what The New York Times and other Eastern Media think of them — and there’s no reason why they should — an opportunity of a lifetime has presented itself in the person of one Donald J. Trump.
The president’s awful sentiments about refugees, immigrants and people suffering in other lands has already rubbed a lot of Mormons the wrong way. They have a chance now to stand up and say so, to shift the media spotlight, assuming they care about such things, off of the church’s very human failings and onto its wonderfully humane, if not always lived-up-to, principles.
The tape is running.
George Pyle, The Tribune’s editorial page editor, has heard from more than a few people who were offended by The Tribune’s coverage of Monson’s death and funeral, finding it overly expansive for a supposedly independent newspaper. He answers, “Hey. Whaddya gonna do? It’s a company town.” firstname.lastname@example.org