Not all sources are created equal

ezra taft bensonYesterday I highlighted some of the thoughtful and interesting media coverage of the death of Gordon Hinckley, the president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Commenters began discussing whether it was a lock that the next president would be the most senior (in terms of experience) church leader.

The Associated Press’ Jennifer Dobner wrote a story about how Mormons have chosen successors since the death of Joseph Smith. Most observers say that Thomas Monson (pictured below) will be the next church president since he fits the traditional pattern of senior church apostle:

Succession was not always so neatly decided, said Mike Quinn, a Mormon historian who was excommunicated from the church. Church founder Joseph Smith never laid out a plan for the process, and more than three years passed from the time he died until Brigham Young took over the church.

“You had different people saying different things about the way to go,” Quinn said.

When Young took control of the church, only about half its members followed him to Utah. Gaps of two or more years between presidencies continued – with senior leaders arguing against seniority as the sole basis.

“Age was a factor,” Quinn said. “They didn’t want to create a gerontocracy. There was a power struggle, or you could say, prophetic disagreement.”

Since it is true both that Quinn is a Mormon historian and also someone who was excommunicated from the church (here’s a 2006 article from the Wall Street Journal about both of those things), it’s good that Dobner disclosed those facts. But note who her next source is:

The system also means that Mormon presidents are bound to be well beyond standard U.S. retirement age. Since 1945, only one church president has been younger than 75 when he took office. To some, that’s troubling.

“There ought to be some kind of vehicle established that takes into account that individual condition, mentally and physically,” said Steve Benson, grandson of former church president Ezra Taft Benson, who died in 1994. “I don’t see what the problem is. This is done in all kinds of corporations.”

This quote from Steve Benson is fairly straightforward. But — and as Pee Wee Herman once eloquently said, “Everyone has a big but” — Benson is not just a grandson of Ezra Taft Benson (pictured above). He’s the same grandson who went public with reports of his grandfather’s senility while he was in office. His 1993 interview with the Associated Press about his grandfather’s condition sent shockwaves throughout the church and was seen as a massive act of betrayal.

I can’t overstate how huge this story was. Steve Benson is no longer a member of the Mormon church and is not a neutral observer. He is, as some readers might know, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist. Steve Benson continues to speak out against the church, most recently in a piece for Editor and Publisher.

MONSON mediumSteve Benson aside, probably no one in the LDS church knew the challenges that arise with the Mormon succession tradition better than Hinckley. He was very instrumental in comforting the members of the church during the Benson presidency and, as one reporter put it in a previous article, helped reshape Mormon views about church leadership. But rather than mention Hinckley’s management of the crisis, Dobner quotes him saying that a church run by old men is a wonderful thing.

Dobner’s article does have some interesting perspective, such as the way it ends:

The head of the Mormon Church is not only leader of a worldwide church, but also a prophet, living testament to the LDS belief that divine revelation continues to this day and can reshape church teaching.

“Normally, we think of priest and prophet as two roles – one is a part of the organizational structure, the other is a voice in the wilderness,” said Richard Bushman, who wrote a biography of church founder Joseph Smith. “From the very beginning, it was a stroke of genius on Joseph Smith’s part to combine a bureaucratic and a prophetic role.”

The Mormon Church also differs from most other religious groups in that it relies not on professional clergy, but on unpaid lay leaders.

Most high-ranking LDS officials have extensive business experience, including Hinckley’s likely successor, Monson. The 80-year-old has a master’s degree in business administration and was formerly general manager of the church-owned Deseret News.

“These guys are generally not theologians,” said Richard N. Ostling, co-author of “Mormon America: The Power and the Promise” and former religion writer for Time magazine and The Associated Press. “They are businessmen and they need to be because it’s like running a multinational corporation, and all the key decisions are tightly held at the top.”

As the LDS church is in the spotlight these next few weeks, readers are looking for information that helps them understand the Mormon church and the role of the prophet and president. Bushman and Ostling are good sources to go to for such perspective. While Quinn is certainly knowledgeable in his own right and Benson’s proximity to the issues at hand noteworthy, if reporters use them as sources they should be very clear about where they are coming from.

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  • FrGregACCA

    As the LDS church is in the spotlight these next few weeks, readers are looking for information that helps them understand the Mormon church and the role of the prophet and president. Bushman and Ostling are good sources to go to for such perspective. While Quinn is certainly knowledgeable in his own right and Benson’s proximity to the issues at hand noteworthy, if reporters use them as sources they should be very clear about where they are coming from.

    Certainly. Conversely, reporters using Bushman should also note that he is an active member of the LDS Church.

  • Rathje

    Actually, Gordon B. Hinckley served as First Counselor (kinda like second-in-command) for three very aged and limited Prophets. The first was Spencer W. Kimball who had a bought with cancer and was incapacitated for much of his tenure. Then was Ezra Taft Benson, which has already been noted. Then there was the very brief tenure of the ailing Howard W. Hunter. During all of these presidencies, the great burden of leading the Church fell to Gordon B. Hinckley and the Second Counselor Thomas S. Monson.

    Actually, Gordon B. Hinckley has been leading the LDS Church a lot longer than his official tenure would indicate.

    Of course a lot of the nuts-and-bolts administration of the LDS Church is handled by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles through its acting President. By seniority, it would have been Thomas S. Monson. But since he has been tied up in the First Presidency for so long, it’s been Boyd K. Packer leading the Quorum of the Twelve.

    But the visible leadership role is in the First Presidency and Gordon B. Hinckley was the active voice for that branch for a looong time.

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  • David H. Sundwall

    It’s even worse. Dobner filed an earlier different story on the same theme and used two different church critics as sources.

    I go into more detail on my blog but she needs to get a bigger Rolodex.

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  • Rathje

    David, as far as I can tell Dobner flagged both those sources. One she specifically stated was excommunicated for writing stuff unfavorable to Joseph Smith and another she describes as an “ex-member.”

    I don’t care if reporters want to cite people unsympathetic with my faith. As long as they flag where those people are coming from that is.

  • Stephen M (Ethesis)

    Those quoting Quinn should note that he has claimed in writing that he should be the President of the Church. She missed that critical point, which seems to be an important highlight of Quinn’s approach to succession in the presidency.

  • Mollie

    FrGregACCA — excellent point. I should have noted that Bushman was LDS and wasn’t identified by the reporter as such in my post.

    Stephen M. — very interesting about Quinn. Where did he claim that?

  • JL Fuller

    The disparity between the way early Church leadership was selected and the way it is today might be attributed to the way revelation works. To those who do not believe God speaks to human beings it won’t matter. To those who find the whole thing confusing but interesting, maybe I can shed a little light on the process. I am not in any position to provide an authorized response however. The process is the same no matter who is asking for guidance. Bear with me a minute. I am going to quote the Doctrine and Covenants which, to those who don’t know about LDS theology, is an operations manual of sorts. Mormons believe it is inspired. D&C 9:8 says just asking for direction from God doesn’t always get it done. In problem solving, we are told to “study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” Sometimes it takes a lot of work and time to arrive at the correct solution. Sometime a thought is placed in your mind like a moment of inspiration or intelligence which unlocks a whole new mental image of the problem that you never dreamed of.

    There are no thunderings or burning bushes or visiting heavenly personages. Such manifestations rarely occur. Sometimes the answer comes immediately. Sometimes it comes in chunks with a solution to the first problem required before subsequent solutions are confirmed. Sometimes the prayer is answered with a question being posed to the petitioner that he must seek an answer to. Such as “What are you going to do with the information if I give it to you?” which might require some introspection first.

    There may be a reason God takes His time in answering. We may never be told why. There is no assurance an answer to any request is immediately forth coming. We are here to learn and be proven. We have to practicing decision making. It is an acquired skill and takes polishing. Sometimes the answer to our prayers is just “I don’t care. It is up to you.” I suppose many people think revelation from God is like something seen in movies with angels and booming disembodied voices. Well it isn’t. It really is quite simple if you understand it. Every human being has had the experience whether they know it or not. You just have to be trained to recognize it. It is an acquired skill.

  • John Remy

    Mollie, thank you for raising this question about sources. Especially on controversial topics, there are going to be strong biases regardless of whether the source is internal, disaffected, or “objectively distant” from the religion. I think this is why Jan Shipps (as a Mormon-friendly scholar of the LDS Church coming from a Methodist background) is so often quoted in news articles.

    In Quinn’s case, there’s one complication–the Church is fairly closed about its decision making and does not look kindly upon any disclosure. Insider information is more likely to come from former insiders who are now disaffected. Could there be a parallel between these people and political insiders who leak information about policies they disagree with?

    So what exactly is the best approach? What sources do you try to track down when covering a topic controversial to the religion in question? Is it difficult to find the right sources as you write towards a deadline?

    I ask these things in part because I’m interested in becoming a journalist of religion. And (here’s my disclosure) in spite of my secular world view and my exit from Mormonism, I believe it’s possible for me to cover Mormonism (and other religions) with fairness and some semblance of objectivity. I just think that journalists have to work their butts off to get there.

    Stephen, I’ve heard something similar and am intrigued. Could you provide a source for the Quinn claim?

  • David H. Sundwall

    Rathje @ #6 –

    That’s a fair point but it strikes me as very odd that the reporter writes two separate stories on the same issue on the same day.

    The tally for her sources is:

    Impartial commentators: 2;
    Prominent Mormon dissidents/critics: 4;
    believing Mormons: 1

    Why do church critics have to be the overwhelming source for her stories?

  • Rathje

    “Could there be a parallel between these people and political insiders who leak information about policies they disagree with?”

    That’s not a bad analogy John. Except in the case of religion, you have up the emotional ante a bit. People seem to get a lot more emotional about disagreements over religion than they do about disagreements over government policies.

  • JL Fuller

    As a lifelong member of the Church, I have come to recognize a few salient characteristics about former member and non-member commenter’s of things Mormon. First, concerning former members; they almost never practiced the faith as it has been recommended and second they were very negative in most areas of their personal lives.

    Some thought they knew more than they did and could never make religion work within their preferred worldly ways. They were never willing to do the things necessary to obtain a spiritual confirmation that changed their heart. If they had been active at some point, they assumed they could remain active and worldly at the same time. This dissonance brought on discordance with church authorities. But rather than recognize it as an opportunity for a mid-course correction they perceived it as an affront, became angry and left. Most ex-Mormons I read were likely ex-communicated. (I hold intellectual dissenters apart from behavioral offenders such as sex offenders.) That is my perception. I have no way of knowing for certain but the hallmarks are there.

    Some are looking for what they perceive to be cracks they can exploit for their own purposes. These anti-Mormons intend to defame or damage the Church. I do not hold them as honest. They have an agenda. Even if they announce their intentions, they are not honest seekers of understanding. They do not seek to bridge divides, they want to enlarge them.

    Other non-LDS commentators appear to study the Church as a phenomenon. If they are true researchers they believe scientific method provides sufficient insights and will reveal hidden truths. If they are mere observers they look at Mormons as a curiosity. I think most honest commentators would acknowledge that. But they never go beyond just observing. They never actually attempt to do what we invite investigators to do. They just observe or report and draw conclusions without actually taking the next few steps. It is like observing the activities of a household from the outside but they never actually go in.

    What all this actually means is that they never fully understand what we are about. They never discover for themselves if what we claim is in fact true. By staying on the outside they allow themselves to be influenced by other worldly dynamics when, but for a small effort, they could go beyond and discover that God is alive and speaks to mortal men. They never find out for themselves that He has made all the mysteries of His kingdom available to those who make the effort.

  • Rathje

    JL Fuller, so you’re saying most all ex-members leave because they were morally deficient?

    I don’t agree with that. Seems rather self-serving actually, although I’m sure your view is well-represented in practicing Mormon circles.

  • JL Fuller

    No. They are not necessarily morally deficient although some are. It seems to me they lack sufficient belief and thereby willingness to sacrifice worldly ideals, such as pride, in favor of unproved spiritual goals such as genuine humility obtained by willing sacrifice. It is willing sacrifice and obedience to the other commandments that brings the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost. Short of that, participation and church activity is for show or is just a plain habit. It boils down to not being able to serve God and mammon. Their failure to live the lives they perceive their contemporaries live leads to despair and negativity. Their professions of belief don’t hold up at crunch time. Most get passed it but some do not. After that it is a blame game.

  • Brett

    President Hinckley first became an assistant to the First Presidency with Spencer W. Kimball in 1981. However as all 3 permanent members of the First Presidency were seriously ill he was defacto President. When President Tanner died he was absorbed into the First Presidency as second counsellor and remained there till President Kimballs death in 1985.

    Under President Benson he was once again appointed to the First Presidency now as first counsellor. However in the final years President Bensons health declined further and President Hinckley once again assumed control of the church.

    Under President Hunter(who barely lasted 9 months) as first counsellor took on much of the duties of church President as President Hunter was already frail when he assumed leadership. Interesting in 1995 there were two solemn assemblies confirming the President of the Church.

    Therefore President Hinckley has had exstensive influence over the Church for the last 26 years, and this doesn’t even take into consideration his previous years as an Apostle and as director of the PR department.

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  • John Remy

    JL Fuller,

    1) You pointed out various deficiencies of non- or ex-LDS sources. I acknowledge that many ex-Mormons have an ax to grind, and that many outside observers will fail to perceive certain aspects of faith that only those who have experienced it can achieve. That said, do you see any problems with relying wholly on faithful LDS sources when covering the Church? Do you consider active, believing LDS members to be free of any agenda concerning the Church?

    2) This is a complete digression from Mollie’s original post, but I have to respond to your overly negative portrayal of those who have left the church. It seems that some of the criticisms you have made of Mormon doubters apply to you–you haven’t experienced the arduous soul-searching and sincere, prolonged questioning that I and many of my friends have struggled through. Based on your comments here, it seems that you’re an outsider to this world, and therefore have a very limited perspective of it. Bringing it back to the post, I think that this provides one illustration why reporters covering religion need to have multiple sources on hand in order to cover any story with sufficient depth.

    That said, I acknowledge that people leave the Church for many different reasons; I can only speak for one segment within a very diverse population.

  • JL Fuller

    Of course I can’t speak for everyone. I can only speak based on my experience and observations. I tried to state that at the beginning of my piece. Maybe I didn’t do that well enough.

    Regarding sources – I suppose it depends on the source and their agenda. Do they want to bridge divides or enlarge them? Is their goal to explain or defame? Certainly not everyone believes alike. Honest people can make a case for their position and be respectful to the other side. If they don’t they have no place in the conversation.

    Regarding former members- I don’t think deficiencies is the best word. If we are correct, then understanding and applying doctrine in one’s life is a process, not an event. Some people who join the church never give it an honest try. They hit a rough patch and give up. Our doctrine does not say that baptism immediately changes one’s life. It just starts you down the road. One has to give up worldly ways, repent and move on in order to continue to grow and develop. It is a life long process. But the most important aid we all have, regardless of religion, is the Holy Ghost. It is learning to live our lives so that we can have His constant companionship that makes the difference. It is learning to be sensitive to His promptings that is critical in personal progress. Worldly ways interferes with the connection. Worldly ways means using man’s judgment as the measure of correctness rather than using the Holy Ghost. If you want to continue with the discussion e-mail me privately.

  • Stephen A.

    SALT LAKE CITY 4 February 2008 Thomas S. Monson is the new president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it was announced today at a news conference in the Church Office Building. President Monson, 80, succeeds President Gordon B. Hinckley, who died 27 January.

    The new world leader of the Church has called to serve with him in the First Presidency, the top governing body of the 13-million-member faith, President Henry B. Eyring, 74, first counselor, and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, 67, second counselor.

    President Boyd K. Packer, 83, is the new president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles will be filled later.