LAT needs source-selecting lessons

Since Mitchell Landsberg assumed religion reporting duties for the Los Angeles Times about a year ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has written a lot of stories that have drawn heavy criticism here at GetReligion.

There was his first religion piece that caught my eye, the glorified news brief that mentioned Cardinal Roger Mahony was out at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Then there was this article sloppily referring to a San Diego evangelical megachurch as a fundamentalist one. And there was this coverage of the Vatican and this bit of puff-piece boostering.

To be fair, Landsberg did write a wonderful story about Yom Kippur for Jewish inmates.

But this story titled “Religious freedom under siege, Mormon leader says,” is absolutely breathtaking. And I use that word in the same manner that Elaine from “Seinfeld” assumed the doctor was using it when he referred to her friends’ hideous baby as “breathtaking.”

The gist of the story is such:

Elder Dallin H. Oaks is one of the most-senior members of the Mormon Church’s 12 leaders, known as the apostles. He’s also a former Utah Supreme Court justice who has been talking for decades about threats to religious freedoms in the United States. Oaks repeated that message recently to a crowd of 800 at Chapman University, in Orange County, only now Oaks said things are getting worse.

“It is easy to believe,” he said, “that there is an informal conspiracy of correctness to scrub out references to God and the influence of religion in the founding and preservation of our nation.”

Not major news, but it passes. And Landsberg delivers this newshook in a sufficient manner. That’s even followed by some nice context, though I disagree with the characterization of the 2008 passage of California’s Proposition 8, which was heavily supported by Mormons, as “the church’s ballot box victory.”

It’s what appears in paragraph eight and dominates the second half of the story that was utterly remarkable.

But many Americans find little evidence that religious liberty is threatened.

I actually agree with that statement, despite the news tabs kept by advocacy groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and a plethora of other organizations. I’m pretty ignorant in this arena and tend to operate under the guise that if I don’t have trouble living by my religious convictions, others must not either. That may not be reality, and I think some of my colleagues would argue it is not, but I’ve never reported on the issue so I’ve never really reached beyond my own experience.

Landsberg, on the other hand, had a duty to readers in reporting a story like this to actually try to reflect reality. To that end, he turns to only two voices to back up that qualification that many Americans — journalism shorthand for: too lazy to find a study but technically correct because “many” refers to an indefinite number — feel religious liberty is not threatened. He reports:

“I hadn’t noticed that,” deadpanned Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates a robust separation of church and state. She questioned whether Oaks was simply feeling “wounded” by criticism of the Mormon Church’s role in the Proposition 8 campaign.

“There’s a real irony,” she continued, “because he doesn’t understand the meaning of religious freedom. … What they want to do is to curtail freedom for gays. They’re not for freedom. They’re for theocracy in matters of marriage. … They’re not so different from the Islamists, the mullahs.”

Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, has been following Oaks’ statements from a unique vantage point. A lawyer, she is a former Mormon who grew up in Utah and has a familial perspective on the church.

Really? I mean, really?!

He couldn’t have picked two worse “sources” to try to substantiate that claim. One is the co-president of an organization that thinks, at all times, that religion is too entangled with American public life and the other is a disaffected Mormon. It’s not that their views don’t matter. (I’m not even going to touch the “mullahs” comment.) It’s just that they don’t back up Landsberg’s line that “many Americans find little evidence that religious liberty is threatened.”

How about calling the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life? They not only survey many Americans, but they can speak authoritatively about American religious issues. What about talking with people who think religion is good but still want to protect its intrusion into the public sphere? I would have accepted even someone with a clear advocacy position like the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Just not two people at the complete opposite spectrum of Oaks. And I emphasize: I don’t agree with Oaks.

Honestly, I debated whether this was even worth posting about. Why? Because this concept is so simple, so basic to decent journalism, that I learned it at my college paper. Editors at small newspapers, like my first haunt, The Sun in San Bernardino, would never let this story get off the city desk.

But that is just not the case at the Los Angeles Times. For a while I thought these issues would abate as Landsberg got comfortable on the Godbeat. And I wanted to believe they would. After all, the LAT is my local paper, arguably the most influential newspaper west of Appalachia and one with a history of strong religion reporting.

But the LAT’s religion stories have improved only negligibly, and I’m starting to think I was overly optimistic. I’m also wondering if institutional knowledge at LAT headquarters on Spring Street has suffered so much from the five-year run of layoffs that there are no editors left to realize what is missing from their religion stories.

IMAGE: Via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Ryan K.

    Yeah kind of like asking Sarah Palin if Americans think we should drill in ANWAR…

  • Jerry

    This is one situation where I’d really like to read a reply from Mitchell Landsberg.

    But to your comment about editors, I’m seeing more and more stupid mistakes such as HTML artifacts in news stories, stories that are chopped badly etc. If people cut and cut sooner or later they will cut the essential and I think we’re in that territory now.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I think we’ve been in that territory at most papers for several years and at the LA Times since at least 2009.

  • Martha

    But Brad! These were disparate sources! One is a secularist who thinks the Mormons are anti-gay, and one is an ex-Mormon who works for gay rights!

    How much more varied could viewpoints get?

  • JDD

    I appreciated the objectivity of your comment, “I’m pretty ignorant in this arena and tend to operate under the guise that if I don’t have trouble living by my religious convictions, others must not either. That may not be reality, and I think some of my colleagues would argue it is not, but I’ve never reported on the issue so I’ve never really reached beyond my own experience.”

    I’m not certain what religion you belong to, but I assume it is one that most would consider “mainstream.”

    Let me assure you that members of minority religions like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, etc., have every right to feel their religious freedom is under attack. Members of these faiths and others like them are often subjected to socially-sanctioned discrimination.

    I know one African-American Mormon, for example, who claims that in the work place she’s been subjected to more discrimination because of her religion than because of her race.

  • C. Wingate

    Well, if you rephrase it accurately as “an anti-religious activist and an ex-Mormon find …” it sort of takes the punch out of the matter. One could have hoped for at least a references to a survey or something.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I would encorage that you read Elder Oaks speech on this matter. He editted a book published by the University of Chicago on questions related to this in 1970 and in 1985 gave a speech in which he effectively traced the negative effects of conflating belief and religious action as they lead up to the decision in Employment Division v. Smith.

    The 1990s were a time of de facto religious establishment by more and more municipalities passing laws that made it impossible to build any new places of worship the city. In 2000 congress passed RLUIPA which shifted the burden and prevented municipalities from 100% banning places of worship.

    As Elder Oaks pointed out “the issue of freedom of religion is about a lot more than worship. It includes the right to wear religious clothing.” He mentioned some other issues as well.

    The article generally ignored the main points of Elder Oaks speech. it also ignored the fact that over half of his quotes were from people of other faiths, such as a Rabbi and Francis Cardinal George. Elder Oaks specifically said what he was calling for was not a return of the “moral majority” but a specialized form of Ecumenicism.

    Another question was not asked in the article that should have been. What is the reaction to Proposition 8 that the Church objects to. Burnings of chapels in the Sacramento area, vandalism on chapels in multiple locations and boycotting people out of jobs for their private actions. Does praticipation in politicial campaigns make your property fair game for arsonists? This is Landsberg’s argument when it is thought through. At a minimum a good journalist would at least ask Landsberg if that is what he is saying. “are you saying that those who support political campaigns should not complain when their property is burned”?

  • Randy

    I wonder why the “many Americans” is even relevant. Oaks would probably concede that most Americans don’t see the threat to freedom of religion he does. If they did they would be marching in the streets. His point is that he sees those freedoms being eroded. He is a religious man and a legal authority. So we should take him seriously.

    There are stories of people involved with weddings who were told to serve at gay weddings or lose your job. Is that an infringement on religious liberty? Adoption agencies that don’t place children with gay couples are illegal in some states. If you provide a few examples like that people can figure out that freedom of religion is in question.

  • Jeff

    Of course, the Mormon Church-owned Deseret News basically printed an article that looks like a press release for Mr. Oaks speech. (See ) The article did not contain any opposing viewpoints.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Thanks for pointing that out, Jeff. I’d also consider that a problem.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Jeff and Brad, the Deseret News is not going to publish an article that includes people directly disagreeing with Elder Oaks. This would mean them publishing material that says that a prophet, seer and revelator is making false statements. You guys can mock it all you want, but there are some things a newspaper owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not do.

    On the other hand, the Deseret News prints reports on speechs all the time. These include many reports on political speeches given at BYU by people who have no standing in the church. Some of these people are even of other faiths. For example Francisc Cadinal George spoke at BYU and the Deseret News reported on it. They did not include in the article opinions of people disagreeing with Cardinal George. They just reported what Candinal George said. You may disagree with this method, but you have to recognize it is fairly standard practice on the part of the Deseret News to report speeches without including critical remarks, at least when they are about religious leaders. Personally I like it a lot better than what you get from the LA Times which is basically a way to give the most bitter people a platform and to invite baseless accusations.

    You have a good point. I think in addition to what you said if Elder Oaks thought that the majority of the population saw that religious freedom was a threat he would not feel the need to give such a speech. The reason you give a speech urging people to put aside their differences and work together to preserve religious freedom is because you see people focusing on their differences and ignoring threats to religious freedom.

    To many Americans are not willing to stand up for the rights of Muslims to practice their religion because such threats do not directly effect them.