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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Bloomberg Businessweek shows poor taste in report on Mormon finances

There are times when the worlds of business and religion intertwine in our interactions with the world. I emphasize the word "interactions" because I believe in embracing and exercising the same set of values in any setting, including work and church - and in my writings.

Media coverage of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka, the "Mormons") has ebbed and flowed from positive coverage to negative coverage, from one publisher to another, since the church was founded in 1830.

A new era of media coverage seems to have begun approximately ten years ago when the Olympics were hosted in Salt Lake City, Utah - the global headquarters for the church. Journalists from around the world published stories about the faith during their visits, prompting a revitalization in the media for coverage of Mormonism. Several years later a prominent member of the church, Mitt Romney, ran for president and was defeated in the primaries. His second attempt proved more fruitful as he now heads to the GOP national convention as the presumed nominee. These conspicuous events generated the near-ubiquitous phrase, "Mormon Moment," even though a more accurate phrase would refer to our faith's latest examination in the press.

Naturally, such heavy coverage has resulted in a few bad apples. The church makes every effort it can to help journalists properly understand our faith to ensure accuracy when their stories appear in print. The online Newsroom is billed as "the official resource for news media, opinion leaders, and the public." The website provides answers to frequently asked questions, common misconceptions, etc. It even provides journalists with contact information for official public affairs representatives to answer questions not found in the copy material, or to respond to specific questions. These resources enable journalists to portray the church's beliefs or positions accurately, regardless of whether the article is intended to portray the church in a positive or negative light.

Unfortunately, not all media outlets take advantage of these resources. As a result, inaccurate articles sometimes find their way onto the printed page or the online blog. Sometimes the inaccuracies are innocuous; sometimes they cause harm; sometimes they promote bigotry or hatred.

I have become accustomed to seeing all kinds of articles with inaccuracies that could have been easily prevented. But there are times when I wonder if the reporter or the media outlet really wants to portray the truth when the partial truth is so much more scandalous and sells so many more copies. Yet in a way, the motivation almost doesn't matter. An unfortunate reality of life is that we must learn to deal with being misrepresented by others. Sometimes those misrepresentations are intimately personal and can lead to heart-wrenching tears. Other times they hurt us indirectly, as when our faith is unjustly attacked or misrepresented.

A recent article and illustration in the prestigious Bloomberg Businessweek periodical manages to mock individual beliefs while seeming to utilize a combination of facts, partial facts, and for lack of a less cruel-sounding word, misrepresentations.

The article entitled, "How the Mormons Make Money," is written by Caroline Winter. The illustration on the cover is tied to this article (a mock-up received by politico.com can be seen here). It depicts a sacred moment in the history of our faith. Yet rather than addressing the context of the image and the sacred words given voice at the time, Businessweek instead depicts John the Baptist, declaring in cartoonish quote-bubbles,

...And thou shalt build a shopping mall, own stock in Burger King, and open a Polynesian theme park in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax..."

To which Joseph Smith is depicted in similar fashion, saying, "Hallelujah."

This evening, I sent a letter to the editor of Businessweek. This particular issue managed to mock my faith with its illustrations and cause me to wonder if Winter's other writings might also utilize so much selective use of fact, save it deal with a topic about which I am not as familiar, and therefore unable to recognize potential problems with her conclusions. I don't know whether Winter's article is merely an example of a feature that slipped through the cracks of fact-checking and editing, or if misrepresentations were made on purpose. The article's connection with the poor taste of the magazine's cover illustration leads me to certain conclusions, but I have not spoken with the writer and cannot make any claims regarding her motivations, research, or editing.

Nonetheless, I have written a letter to the editor. (I am always hesitant to send letters to editors for publication because so much liberty is often taken with my text. In one instance I was tempted to write a letter to the editor rebutting the arguments I made in my first letter, but which were modified by the editor so much that they represented the opposite of my original point).

I don't know if the letter will be accepted for publication or if it will be published in its unedited form, but I feel strongly enough about what I view as a stain on Bloomberg's reputation that I have included the text of my letter here.

2 comments:

  1. Hi, Kurt-

    I'm a visitor to your blog from another of your posts dealing with an issue of the intersection of politics and religion (two subjects I was always taught to avoid in polite conversation). I appreciate your including in that piece as well as in your comments on the top 5 issues of the presidential election, a wish for civility in public discourse of the sort that seems sadly lacking in the Bloomberg Businessweek piece.

    One has come to expect--or at least not to be surprised at--the progressive coarsening of conversation in internet forums, blogs and the like, but it is still jarring to see simple lack of respect for others in a mainstream (perhaps I mean *printed*) publication.

    I suppose I've seen other insulting cartoon depictions of religious events similar to the cover illustration from time to time, but not in a publication like that one.

    I'm afraid I am old enough to remember a time before blogs or internet forums, or even email or answering machines, and I do not recall anything like the lack of civility in communication we see now. Maybe I'm just a geezer seeing the good old days through rose glasses, but I have to ask whether part of the decline has been the ready availability of anonymity that is the result of communication of the sort I'm engaging in right now.

    There was a time opinions like I'm offering here had to be through a letter to the editor (as you did with Bloomberg Businessweek), or not at all, and there was little chance of an anonymous letter seeing print.

    Of course our present choices for communication are far wider and that's a good thing, but I wonder if the ready anonymity causes writers and commenters to feel less need for civility, and whether this has somehow spilt over into online articles or print pieces where the author does privide his or her name, such as the one you have referenced above.

    Just my two cents.

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  2. Mike,
    I think you're spot on in your comments about the impact of anonymous comments. It used to be that if you wanted to share your thoughts in the media in the form of a comment, you would have to provide an editor with your name, address, phone number, etc. In fact, these demographics are still required for most letters to the editor.

    I think the ability to comment anonymously has contributed immensely to the decline of civility in society.

    In my own attempt to demonstrate my feelings, I don't utilize pseudonyms in my online comments, but rather use my own name so that I am held responsible for my words. I appreciate that you appear to be doing the same.

    With any luck, the time will come when there are more stringent requirements online for posting comments. I think requiring the use of our real names is probably the best comment filter there is. How many people would be as cruel in public as they are in the darkness of anonymity?

    Thanks for your "two cents." Your comments here are very insightful.

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