A “compound” problem?

FLDS Eldorado hi 2The last few days have been filled with the sad story of the removal of over 400 children along with their mothers from a polygamous community in Texas.

The group that’s in trouble is the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints. You might remember them from last year’s dramatic hunt for leader and prophet Warren Jeffs. He was convicted of rape charges in Utah last year.

So you have a group that is definitely on the fringe of mainstream religious thought. And you have charges of sexual and physical abuse against children. As far as groups go, this one is not going to win many accolades.

But how has the coverage been? John Morehead, a Christian writer in Utah, has some complaints, saying that the media have not been objective:

First, most media reports on this incident refer to a raid of a sect “compound.” Why isn’t it referred to as the group’s property, community, or living quarters? The term “compound” has been used of fringe religious groups that have come to embody the worst in the popular consciousness where religious extremism is concerned, being associated with things like Jonestown in Guyana or the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Is “compound” used because the assumption is made that religious groups that live on the margins of traditional society and religion are automatically suspect? Is there an unconscious connection with the use of the word to those religious groups that have come to personify the worst of religious “cults”?

Second, it is interesting that this recent frenzy on the part of the media and the general public in relation to a controversial religious sect comes with allegations of child abuse. Recall that one of the initial reasons the BATF engaged the Branch Davidians was over the same allegation. Perhaps these allegations will be proven true, perhaps not. We will have to wait for all the facts and evidence to be released in order to know for sure. But we might consider that given our culture’s extreme sensitivities to child abuse that the mere allegation of abuse is enough to initiate the removal of children by authorities and their separation from their parents, and many times the allegations are never proven only to see the children and parents reunited after a long and stressful time of separation. And once an allegation of child abuse is made, it is never possible to completely remove the stigma that the mere allegation raises. (We might also consider that child abuse occurs with unfortunate regularity in both secular and mainstream religious settings as well, so we should exercise caution before throwing stones at an alleged child-abusing “cult.”)

With regard to the first complaint, I’m not sure I see the word compound as a problem. The FLDS sect sets up communities where movement is limited — both in terms of outsiders being permitted in and insiders being permitted out. They guard their cluster of homes with sophisticated defense mechanisms. CNN was one of the media outlets to use the word compound. But, they noted:

CNN’s previous visits to the ranch revealed the compound was guarded by armed men equipped with night-vision gear and other high-tech surveillance tools.

I don’t necessarily see compound as a negative word. And I think that ranch or community might not be the best way to describe the actual situation in which these residents live. What do you think? Is compound the wrong word to use? What would be better?

And as for the complaint about how the media treat people accused of child abuse, I couldn’t agree more. Again, in the case of the FLDS, it’s not like these claims are coming from nowhere. Jeffs’ own family members have been coming forward in droves to report being raped as children. But, as one of the readers who passed along this story noted, the media are expected to be above the fray. Over 400 children were just seized from their parents on the basis of one individual’s claim.

Now that I’m a mother, I’m even more wary of the power of the state to interfere in family matters without due process. I haven’t seen any coverage of the events in West Texas that even asks whether authorities overstepped.

Part of the problem is that fundamentalist Mormons are known for avoiding the media. So the only people speaking to the matter are former members of the sect — many of whom left to avoid the abuse they were subjected to.

So it’s just a very tricky story. How should the media treat religious groups that are outside the mainstream? A few weeks ago, we had the media bending over backward to contextualize the extremist remarks of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Is there any contextualizing of the FLDS? Should there be?

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  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Something tangentially related: Did you notice that when the temple was searched, there was little or no mention of the taboo-ness of gentiles entering it? I wondered about that, and I still haven’t seen anything that mentions the FLDS reaction to having their sanctum sanctorum violated.

  • http://www.vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Joel:

    I saw it mentioned somewhere, but don’t recall at the moment where. Part of the reason, apparently, for the heavy artillery being called out was in anticipation of the FLDS reacting extremely negatively to having their temple breached. This apparently did not happen.

  • http://blog.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    The American Heritage Dictionary defines “compound” as a “building or buildings, especially a residence or group of residences, set off and enclosed by a barrier.” That seems like a fair enough description.

    I agree that this is a difficult story to cover, partly because most people involved aren’t talking to the media and because the minors involved are legally entitled to their privacy. But I’d like to see a little bit more about some of the legal aspects involved. According to most reports, many of those being detained are adult women, but the legal grounds for their detention aren’t clear to me although I have read quite a few news stories.

    And I have seen very little about the First Amendment issues that this case potentially raises.

    I also think it’s important that when the reports are making a distinction between the FLDS and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that they do so in an accurate manner. The worst explanation I saw was on the CNN web site, where it described the FLDS (which, to be precise, is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, note the uppercase D and no hyphen) as a “rogue branch” of the LDS church. That’s just not accurate at all. (Maybe we should consider Lutherans a “rogue branch” of the Catholics.)

    The Associated Press stylebook says that the term “Mormon” shouldn’t be used to refer to any church other than the LDS church. I don’t really agree with the stylebook; I think that “fundamentalist Mormon” is a fair description of many of these groups for those who are familiar with Mormon history, although that term has problems too.

    It’s also not technically accurate to say that the FLDS “broke away” from the mainstream church. When I see a phrase like “break away,” I think of something like the potential schism in some mainline denominations, where congregations or dioceses break off. As I understand it, the FLDS was started by people who were no longer Mormons (many were excommunicated) and decided to form their own denomination. It’s kind of those those people, written about on this site previously, who start their own “Catholic” church so they can ordain women. I wouldn’t say that those groups have “broken away” from the Catholic Church; it’s more like they are independently formed groups that claim to to be teaching the “true” religion that the main group has lost.

    This might be nitpicking, I’m not sure. Certainly there’s a historical connection, and both the LDS and FLDS churchs are part of what is sometimes called the restorationist movement (although it’s not the only restorationist movement).

    A final note: The best coverage I have seen is coming from the Salt Lake Tribune, which has reporters on site. I have been surprised to see how little coverage there is from the Texas newspapers. Among them, the Dallas Morning News seems to be doing the most.

  • http://www.lowly.blogspot.com/ Undergroundpewster

    We are all of that “kind.” As the above post proves. Little changes over the ages, the Bible has stories of incest, greed, lust, war, etc. Humans have not changed. We do have the ability to make and adjust our laws. The post points to what constitutes reason for sesarch and seizure, and how does the law address seizure of people, and search of Religious property.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Underground is reacting to an angry, out of bounds post that has been removed. Focus on the journalism issues, folks.

  • Joy

    does any one know whats being done for the mothers and their children? are they being kept together? are they being torn apart and shipped off every which way tearing apart what little they have left ? these women and children have been taught over several generations on what to expect in life and havnt been aloudt to think out side of that, now along comes texas or the goverment and takes them away from the only way of life they know and then to top it off take their children away too. what bothers me the most about this is what even now in the name of protecting the children is still being done to them. this will traumtize the children and the mothers just as much as the life they led before. there is nothing more sacred than the bound between a mother and a child.
    I can hope the layers the government and everyone else involved can see this and will help keep these families to gether and help them reasimulate in to the mainstream scoicty that they were just thrust into.

  • Mark Ruzon

    Perhaps “derivative” is a better term than “break away.” A derivative work of art is one that is clearly inspired by someone else’s work. The FLDS can be said to be derived from the LDS. It connotes the connection as well as the separation.

  • http://www.bob.com bob

    All I have to say is the following: I hope all religious people remember to be this concerned about freedom the next time someone tries to remove the word “god” from something involving the government. This hypocrisy will never cease to amaze me.

  • FW Ken

    You say “compound” and I think cult group with a paranoid leader holed up with his followers on a hill outside Waco, eventually dying in a fire they possibly started (or not).

    Maybe it’s just me, but “compound” is a heavily loaded word and has been since the Branch Davidian tragedy. You can argue that the word is appropriate in the current situation, but you cannot, I think, argue that the word is neutral.

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com/wp/ holmegm

    A few things have fascinated me about the coverage.

    1. The obsession with non-illegal details. Granted, they are interesting and newsworthy, but it’s hard to escape the impression that reporters are *more* upset and concerned with “prairie dresses”, the lack of TV, and so forth, than they are with any actual crimes.

    2. The moralistic nature of the coverage, given the sexual norms of our mainstream society today. We’re *that* upset about teenage girls having sex, are we? Are we really? Doesn’t our mainstream society actually *mock* the idea of teenage chastity?

    We’re *that* upset about men impregnating multiple women (other than we want to get them under child support orders)? Or is only bad if they consider themselves married to the women?

    3. Lack of any historical or world context. How shocking is marriage at puberty, in that larger context? One needn’t sympathize to at least put things in a bit of perspective.

  • http://www.vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    I’m not sure if this is directly related to the journalistic issues, but in response to holmegm, I think a huge part of this, in terms of what you address, has to do with whether or not the young women in question had any real choice in entering into these “marriages”. Since, by any definition, marriage requires the uncoerced consent of both parties, this presents a huge stumbling block to anyone who might look at this as simply an “alternative lifestyle”.

  • http://www.lowly.blogspot.com/ Undergroundpewster

    #13

    I don’t think many here know the history of this group, thats what I think!

    Well, shouldn’t that be the point of good news reporting? We are here because of interest in the religious aspects of the story. I realize that it may take time for us to learn more, but you point out that there is stuff “out there” to help us understand the story.

  • http://www.bycommonconsent.com Steve Evans

    I couldn’t agree more with gfe’s earlier comments. I’d like to see more discussion of the legality of the acts involved. I can also see the use of words like ‘cult’ and ‘compound’ being thrown around in order to rework the FLDS group into another set of Branch Dividians, which just doesn’t work as a functional matter.

    I’d love to see as well a better distinguishing between mainstream Mormonism (LDS) and bizarre splinter groups like the FLDS. The existence of an historical connection — and there is certainly one between the two groups — is not enough to mistake or (if you’ll pardon the word) compound the two in current media coverage. It tends to drive LDS bloggers (such as myself) a little nuts.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Can a Catholic monastery or a cloistered convent be rightfully referred to as a compound? If so, then so true for the FLDS buildings. If not, well …..

  • Dave

    Mollie:

    I agree with FW Ken (surprise!) that “compound” is a loaded word that irresistibly brings to mind the whole “dangerous, armed, fringe cult” stereotype — even if the group’s property conforms to the dictionary definition of “compound.”

  • Michael

    a loaded word that irresistibly brings to mind the whole “dangerous, armed, fringe cult” stereotype — even if the group’s property conforms to the dictionary definition of “compound.”

    But why is that an inaccurate perception? The “community’s” leader was wanted by the FBI, there was believed to be a stash of arms, and they have fairly cult-like traits. So if there are armed guards keeping people out (and in) and law enforcement believed people were being kept there without their consent, why not call it a compound?

    Is the discomfort the word “cult” when applied to a group of Mormons? Is it because this reflects poorly on Mormons? Is it because instead of looking like the People’s Temple Cult or Branch Dividians, they look like the Amish or Mennonites?

    The reaction (and defensiveness) about the story is as interesting as the story itself.

  • Jerry

    Is the word “compound” turning into the latest example of word losing it’s meaning like “evangelical”? From my neck of the woods, it’s a neutral term.

  • Daniel H. Conway

    This is picking nits. Overly sensitive complaints in the background grievance-shaped culture.

    Lets be clear. These folks ain’t doing whats right or good. And extensive news coverage is noting this.

    The conservative side of the political spectrum usually whines when ethnic groups or racial groups form opinions based on the media’s handling or the government’s handling of such events. But their religious wing has embraced this.

    A blog devoted to whining about such matters may ultimately end up picking at nits.

    This discussion demonstrates that not every religious discussion handled by the media is that faulty. The media hit this one well.

    There may be other spinsters with other motivations that would suggest difficulties in handling this story.

  • Dave

    Michael asks:

    But why is that ["armed, dangerous, fringe cult"] an inaccurate perception?

    The point is not whether it’s accurate. We don’t know what’s accurate yet; we only know what we read in the papers and see/hear in newscasts.

    The point is whether the word invokes a stereotype that can influence everything from readership opinion to the defendants’ ability to obtain impartial justice.

    With all due respect to Daniel H. Conway, this is not picking nits. It’s an important point of journalistic practice, which on this particular kind of religion story can descent into journalistic malpractice when calculating prosecutors feed loaded language to journalists who pass them along to readers.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Okay, so the word “compound” is too harsh, eh? How about these words instead: “gulag,” “prison,” “concentration camp.”

  • Dale

    I’m troubled how the media has focused on the religious aspects of this story–even the polygamy– when it’s a story about child abuse, specifically statutory rape. Anyone–Mormon, animist, atheist– who has sex with a minor under the age of consent commits statutory rape. The law of most states provide that a child is inherently incapable of consenting to a sexual relationship, so the fact that the children were “willing” or “unwilling” is immaterial.

    Statutory rape is child abuse per se. If minors are pregnant with the children of an adult male (or, in some states, even of a minor male), those minors have been abused in the eyes of the law, no matter what their religion says about it. A parent who knowingly permits the statutory rape of their child is also involved in child abuse or neglect. The coverage I’ve seen indicates that there are more than a few pregnant teenagers among the FLDS flock. Further, the FLDS community in the person of Warren Jeffs has not only encouraged statutory rape, but has coerced it.

    In my state, that’s more than enough grounds to have children removed from parental custody. If anything, the state was at fault for not removing the children sooner. I imagine that the child welfare agency couldn’t ignore desperate calls from a minor within the FLDS compound, because the state’s inaction would have caused scandal.

    The fact that these are fundamentalist Mormons or polygamists is beside the point. It would still be child abuse if it were happening among enlightened, wealthy yuppies in Marin County.

  • Dale

    There may be other spinsters with other motivations that would suggest difficulties in handling this story.

    Hey Mollie, I’ll bet that’s the first time you’ve been called a spinster. ;-)

  • http://www.4mormon.org Christy

    Have you watchted the film: “Lifting the Veil of Polygamy”? You can see it at mormonchallenge.com. It has interviews of people who where in the polygamist sects like this one. Im sure the media is just scratching the surface when it comes to the child abuse in groups like this one.

  • Cicero

    Here are few links for those dissatisfied with the big media coverage:

    The Salt Tribune has a reporter whose job is to cover polygamy related issues (it was founded as an anti-polygamy newspaper), here is her blog of her on the ground in Texas reports:

    http://blogs.sltrib.com/plurallife/

    Here is a Texas blog addressing many of the legal issues:

    http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com/

    Hope that helps.

  • Matt H

    Here is a Texas blog addressing many of the legal issues:

    http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com/

    Hope that helps.

    Interesting perspective. But if the age of consent is now 17, why would it be surprising that the age for marriage was raised from 14 to 16? If a 16-year old can’t legally consent to a single sex act, how can such a child consent to marriage?

    Granted, the law may have been changed on account of one religious group’s activities, but it’s certainly not an anti-religious law, nor do I think a religious group can take advantage of the First Amendment to avoid it — it has a clear secular purpose. If the First Amendment shields them from marrying 16-year olds, why wouldn’t it have shielded them before with respect to marrying children even younger?

    And polygamy was already illegal.

    Sorry, but I think your blogger is overwrought. I for one expect we’ll end up with more details of child abuse than we want.

    P.S. It’s properly termed a “cult” and a “compound” when people can’t leave, and/or they’re brainwashed, and/or (in the final analysis) it’s a place to hide criminal activity away on the edge of society.

    Thank God they didn’t try to kill all the children, as in Guyana and Waco.

  • Michael

    Inherent in the phrase “age of consent” is “consent.” Children denied food, locked in closets, not allowed to leave the “community” are not usually in a position to consent to marriages to men three times their age.

    I think stories focusing on whether the state of Texas is prepared to handle all these child abuse and neglect cases is a good one and it will be interesting to see where the children end up. I also think a story about the anti-government anxiety surrounding such seizures and government intervention–especially as it plays out on the right and when dealing with religious people–is another interesting story.

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  • Dave

    John L. Hoh, Jr. asked:

    Okay, so the word “compound” is too harsh, eh? How about these words instead: “gulag,” “prison,” “concentration camp.”

    It’s not the harshness of the word alone that’s in discussion here; it’s the ability of the word to slip past the reader’s conscious judgement filters and implant the idea it is intended to. Those other words would raise alarm bells as to their accuracy and intent; therefore a manipulative prosecutor would be unlikely to employ them

  • Peggy

    Do you also think this is an instance where the word “prophet” should be in quotes? After all, Jeffords and whoever else in this FLDS are so-called prophets only by their own say. [Actually, who is qualified to label any contemporary a "prophet"?]

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    A writer in LIBERTY noted that the HQ of the Second Republic of Texas was also identified as a “compound”, suggesting that the real working definition was “premises of any kind being currently assailed by government agents.”

    For waht it is worth, characters in BIG LOVE scripts routinely refer to Juniper Creek as “the compound”.

    I also rember NYT story saying that Ervil LeBaron was known as “the Mormon Manson”, even though “he is not a Mormon” (i.e., not in the Temple church.)

  • http://www.silentlambs.org Danny Haszard

    The Jehovah’s Witnesses have settled lawsuits alleging church policies protected pedophile men who sexually abused children for many years.
    Frederick McLean is one of the most-wanted fugitives in the United States
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21917798/

  • Rathje

    You guys are missing the point. It has nothing to do with whether the descriptors are true. It’s a question of whether the media should be using it or not.

    I don’t need the media telling me that child abuse is wrong. I can figure that out on my own, thanks.

    What I do object to, is the pagentry and spin that the media occasionally inserts into what should be merely objective and factual retelling (at least as much as possible). I don’t need media sticking its finger in the wind to find out what the popular sentiment is, and then catering to it.

    I would hope that when a minority group actually is being unfairly regarded by the larger society, the media isn’t just going to brainlessly jump on the bandwagon and act as cheerleader for the popular consciousness. I would hope that media has the POTENTIAL to act as one of the brakes on our society – even when it requires telling the conventional wisdom that it is wrong.

    Use of non-neutral descriptors to cater to what most of America thinks already makes me question whether the news media is really capable of playing this role when it really matters.

    Also keep in mind, that most of the civil rights cases that protect everyone are tested by the unsympathetic cases. It’s easy to talk about freedom, liberty and civil rights when it’s someone you like and agree with or feel sympathy for. The real test of democratic society however, is in how it treats the people it doesn’t like.

    Again, my own personal opinion is that there’s some pretty heinous stuff going on in this news story and it ought to be prosecuted. But I don’t need that opinion enforced by CBS. I already had it on my own.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Rathje,

    I never had a problem with the word compound, and I don’t find your last comment changing my mind.

    Whether a description is true or false has everything to do with whether the media should be using it. Calling a ranch with controlled entry and exit and armed guards a compound is a much better description, in my view, than “ranch.” I’ve been on lots of ranches and that is just not the best word to use to describe the reality of what’s going on in West Texas.

    I completely agree that the rhetoric needs to be calm and deliberate, but considering the limited space reporters are working with, what would be a better description?

    I haven’t heard any good substitutes.

    Anyway, I’m also intrigued by this:

    I would hope that when a minority group actually is being unfairly regarded by the larger society, the media isn’t just going to brainlessly jump on the bandwagon and act as cheerleader for the popular consciousness. I would hope that media has the POTENTIAL to act as one of the brakes on our society – even when it requires telling the conventional wisdom that it is wrong.

    Sure. But what about the children in this case? Let’s not be so eager to protect the old men married to multiple wives that we undermine the truth of the case.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Bigamy is illegal, not polygamy

    http://www.sexwork.com/legal/LawrencevsTexas.html
    Bigamy (Polygamy) and Lawrence v. Texas

    While the current case is a loss for a bigamy appeal in the Utah Supreme Court, some of the reasons actually emphases the difference between bigamy and other private consenting adult sexuality which is a constitutional right under Lawrence vs. Texas.

    Regarding Lawrence v Texas the Utah Supreme Court, takes pains to limit the opinion’s reach to decriminalizing private and intimate acts engaged in by consenting adult gays and lesbians (why should it ONLY apply to gays and lesbians the concept of privacy is the same for heterosexuals) . In fact, the Court went out of its way to exclude from protection conduct that causes ‘injury to a person or abuse to an institution the law protects.’” The court reason that since the bigamy law protects the institution of marriage, the state could take action to prosecute conduct inimical to that protected institution.

    But the opinion reveals a split in the court over how to deal with the various questions presented, which included, in addition to due process privacy, equal protection and free exercise of religion, as well as a vigorous argument over the actual reach of the state law, which applies both to plural marriages and “purported” marriages. A concurring opinion and a dissenting opinion by the Chief Justice signal concerns by some members of the court about the state’s intervention in family matters.

    The defendant in this case raised as part of his defense that his multiple marriages were religious marriages, not civil marriages, and thus could not be criminalized by the state as “bigamy”. The Chief Justice agreed with this argument, finding that the “purports to marry” prong of the bigamy statute raised constitutional questions.

    In particular, relating to Lawrence, the Chief Justice writes, “I do not believe that the conduct at issue threatens the institution of marriage, and I therefore cannot agree that it constitutes in ‘abuse’ of that institution. . . The Supreme Court in Lawrence… rejected the very notion that a state can criminalize behavior merely because the majority of its citizens prefers a different form of personal relationship.”

    After referring to a recent Virginia Supreme Court decision striking down that state’s fornication law based on Lawrence, the Chief Justice stated, “In my opinion, these holdings correctly recognize that individuals in today’s society may make varied choices regarding the organization of their family and personal relationships without fearing criminal punishment.”

  • Rathje

    Actually Mollie, I’m pretty ambiguous on the whole use of the word “compound.” It raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t seem a serious enough breach to warrant too much outcry.

    I was however grimly amused by the earlier comment of how the media seem more horrified by the “prairie dresses” of the FLDS than by the child abuse. I don’t think that’s exactly fair, but it did seem to strike a bit close to home.

  • http://www.ksvaughan2.byregion.net Karen Vaughan

    As I recall, the homes of the various Kennedys built together was always referred to as the Kennedy Compound. Without armed guards to keep the family in.

    I don’t think the word is either loaded or inaccurate.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    I am not too concerned with the word “compound” at that is what this is. My problem is that, regardless of the actual cases of child abuse that exists, serious breaches of Constitutional rights of the accused seem to have taken place. At the least, too many innocents have been caught in the cross-fire of prosecution directly or indirectly.

    There has been some great coverage at the blog Messenger and Advocate that discusses legal questions.

    Probably the biggest question both legal and journalistic, is why there is such a double standard with the FLDS. To quote from this article:

    FLDS polygamists who broke off from us Mormons more than a century ago are discussed endlessly. They are often conflated with LDS. Yet African immigrants often bring polygamy with them. It’s all done in secret. It’s even described as slavery. The community is described as “very private” and “not really ready to trust us” – this by the department of Women’s Housing and Employment.

    . . . Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not justifying in the least the FLDS. Certainly not the abuse if it is as has been reported. All I’d like is a little consistency by the media. So here’s my question. Will the police be charging in to immigrant African housing the way they did the FLDS compound?

    There is a quote from Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran that is troubling. “[T]his is the United States,” Doran said. “We are going to respect them. We’re not going to violate their civil rights until we get an outcry.” So, when “we” get an outcry then forget all civil rights. After all, since no one likes them then there is no reason to give them any rights.

    Probably the biggest question for myself is where are the two groups that seem the most vocal about this kind of wholesale round-up? The ACLU has been almost completely silent. Those who question government interference, such as with Guantanamo don’t seem to recognize the similarities.

    Finally, this isn’t a question of child abuse. No doubt such took place. This is a question of due process, fair coverage, hidden political agendas (did you know one of the charges against them might be not having health care coverage?), and assualt on freedoms against unpopular minorites.

  • Daniel

    I need to start keeping closer tabs on GetReligion. I don’t say this because I’m a particularly keen fan or because I have found the insights of this column to be particularly profound (although I am a fan and I do appreciate some of the things written). Rather, I think it will take hard and fast data to demonstrate the knee-jerk defense of right- and traditional-leaning religious causes and groups on the one hand combined with the knee-jerk criticism of left- and non-traditional-leaning causes and groups on the other that GetReligion presents as a defense of objective and careful journalism on religious matters.

    We are coming off of several years of journalistic coverage of the FLDS. The claims of adult and minor sexual abuse, adult and minor rape, forced bigamy, exile of males when females get too scarce to maintain the bigamist lifestyle, inter alia, are neither new nor isolated. I think you’re right to criticize reporters on the God beat who assume the worst when the specter of child abuse is raised and legal action is taken that some might see as extreme. But you must appreciate how you’re coming across with respect to this particular story. This is not a case of a single allegation against a controversial priest. We are discussing a pattern of allegations from myriad sources against both individuals and the entire system that is the FLDS that goes back several years. Nor is the action taken by authorities sudden. This pattern of allegations is compounded (no pun intended) by a history of at least three state jurisdictions and more local jurisdictions being unable or unwilling to take any action despite these reports over the last several decades.

    I do believe that a reporter should not presume to be a jury, but I also believe that reporters are entirely within their rights to exercise inductive reasoning. A reporter does not need to issue subpoenas, call witnesses, and demonstrate proof beyond a reasonable doubt to determine how she will present the facts that she has gathered. Her threshold is much lower. She is afforded the luxury of common sense. And common sense tells us that where there is smoke, there is usually a fire. Where there is a lot of smoke, there’s probably a big fire.

    I agree with you, Mollie, in that reporters should exercise more journalistic caution with highly-sensitive allegations. But this isn’t an example of reporters failing to do due diligence. This is an example of a cult, operating out of a compound, that is almost assuredly ruining the lives of young boys, young girls, young men, young women, old men, and old women alike. And I am profoundly skeptical that you would be so willing to discuss the stigma of alleged child abuse had the story been about the affairs of an Ashram, a Santeria commune, or a Sufi community.


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