How not to report on religion

A GetReligion reader submitted an interesting link to “Fox & Friends” co-host Ainsley Earhardt making a statement that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is “obviously” not a Christian.

It’s a brief comment as part of a larger conversation about how Romney might have trouble with evangelical voters. And it’s the type of statement that inappropriately takes sides in a fierce theological debate. Traditional Christian church bodies and Mormons do not recognize each others’ baptisms or sacraments as valid. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints concede that they oppose traditional Christian beliefs and the ecumenical creeds but they say that they follow Jesus and are Christian.

“Obviously” Fox & Friends hosts should not weigh in on this debate about whether to call Mormons Christian.

I wasn’t sure if it was enough to build a post around, figuring I’d save it for the inevitable series of Mormon posts we’ll be writing as Harry Reid, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman and other famous Mormons continue to be in the news.

However, the reader also sent along the online video clip that is embedded here. And it is utterly amazing.

In it, reporter Ben Ferguson mocks Mormons beliefs with all the nuance of a brick through a plate glass window. He makes fun of Mormon beliefs on the afterlife and then mocks teachings about where they believe the Garden of Eden is located. And why? It’s really hard to tell. The reporter makes some point about how his “reporting” shows that Romney will want to keep discussion away from his religion.

Come on. This is not reporting. This is shockingly inappropriate for broadcast by a supposedly objective local media outlet. The report apparently ran a couple of weeks ago but I didn’t catch it until this week. At the time it ran, Joanna Brooks at Religion Dispatches unloaded on the piece. Here’s how she explained what happened:

“Can you name the candidate who is running for president who believes that if he is a good person, he will get his own planet?” Ferguson goaded.

Five or six Memphis citizens shake their heads, chuckling, rolling their eyes. One woman darts from the camera.

“It’s not Mitt Romney is it?” asks a man in a blue shirt with a ponytail.

“It is Mitt Romney,” intones Ferguson, aping and goofing, “it is.”

“Would you vote for someone for president who believes that if they are a good person, you will get their own planet?” Ferguson continues, “You want your own planet, don’t you?”

Sure, it’s a distorting and sensationalistic caricature of Mormon beliefs to say that all of us believe we’re going to get our own planets. You could sit in your local Mormon Church for a month of Sundays and hear no reference to it. Even among orthodox Mormons, talk of planets (and the American location of the Garden of Eden—another matter ridiculed by Ferguson) is the subject of gentle insider humor, a nod to older strains of Mormon belief and folklore.

But even more objectionable is holding a televised street-corner referendum with the sole aim of making a minority religion look foolish.

Exactly. While Brooks might be understating the Mormon position on these doctrines, it’s not like the reporter — or the anchor who chats with him after the bit or any producer involved in it — was aiming to inform or tie these beliefs into actual policy discussions. I’m all for people discussing the role religion might play in a candidate’s perspective. But this was not done for that purpose.

I hope that Ferguson and his bosses reconsider whether such religious mocking should ever be allowed on the air again.

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  • Mike Hickerson

    I don’t know who Ben Ferguson is (I don’t watch cable news), but how can he be qualified to analyze anything about Romney’s campaign when he says that Romney “dropped out early” in the 2008 campaign? I guess “early” means after running in 31 primaries and coming in second on Super Tuesday. The only nonwinning candidates to remain in the race after that were Huckabee (who still thought he had a shot) and the two “I don’t care about winning as long as my platform gets heard” candidates, Ron Paul and Alan Keyes.

  • Elijah

    One wonders if there’s any belief Ferguson wouldn’t mock for his own amusement, ego, or whatever drives him. A university professor once told me that this kind of mockery was, in his experience, a sure sign of intellectual vapidness – that the only people who indulge in that kind of low behavior don’t really know what they’re talking about in the first place. Wise words.

  • Mollie

    This was local television, not cable TV. But still …

  • Dave

    I optimistically await GR’s rage the next time some media mammal tries to make Paganism look foolish.

  • tmatt


    What a foolish comment. You have seen us attack inaccurate — or missing — coverage of pagan issues many times in the past. Right? Example: Papers not seeing cases (think armed forces stories, or military cemeteries) in which religious liberty issues of pagans are at stake.

    You have reason to be optimistic, whether you used that word cynically or not.

    Help us find the stories. You will see us call for balanced and accurate coverage.

  • Mollie

    We certainly have done our fair share of analysis of just that. And I recommend the Wild Hunt for some ongoing analysis of inaccurate and mocking media coverage of Pagans. The blog is now hosted by Patheos. No one puts more links in a post.

  • Harold

    Fergsuon isn’t a reporter. He’s clearly identified as a conservative talking head (radio host). While the story is questionable as news, he’s not doing news, he’s a professional conservative pundit.

    The sorry situation is ironic, though, because it underscores the exact problem it presents: Mormons have problems in the Bible Belt.

  • Mollie

    Well, I’m glad to learn he’s not a reporter but it still shows horrible judgment by the journalists at the station.

  • Ryan K.

    Mollie are you saying that Fox & Friends should not have an opinion on the distinctions between Mormonism and Christianity? If so, I am curious why you would believe that.

    Part of the problem with the coverage of religion today, and why we see some of this sensationally shocking and brash coverage, is because the honest and real beliefs of religions never get brought up or are endlessly obfuscated.

    The public is often massively aware of many doctrines and teachings of both Mormonism and Islam, that they never see the media highlight or mention. Now this does not need to be done in an insulting fashion, but when the distinctions or nuances are never mentioned or allowed to be discussed, it only frustrates the public that much more.

    Even the response you give by Joanna Brooks is more spin that just makes people roll their eyes.

    She says that not all Mormons believe in the doctrine of them getting their own planet and become a god if deemed a good Mormon, but this is clearly false. Even a book like “Mormonism Explained” provides all the source documentation you need to see that Mormonism teach about advancing through Temple activities to the Celestial Kingdom and then move on to Godhood. This is the path the God of our planet took, and the path that every good Mormon is to follow. Why does this have to be insulting to mention? Why does this have to be controversial? It is simply what Mormons believe? Can’t the media do a better job at clearly reporting these things without being labeled “mockers” or “anti-Mormon”?

  • Patrick

    This is a problem that I have noticed with increasing frequency. How can you report on something about which you are ill-acquainted. However, I don’t know why we should be surprised. There is no such thing as objectivity in the media or the world.

    As a conservative, it is frustrating to see “conservative news outlets” making the same errors in judgment as the “media outlets of the left”.

  • Stephen A.

    Well, first, this is hardly “news” by any objective standard. There’s some punditry, and some mocking of Mormonism, but that’s far from “news,” so the criticism is certainly warranted.

    What is “newsy” is the utter rejection of Mitt Romney by Southern, largely fundamentalist, voters in 2008. Their reasons would be something interesting to tease out in interviews. It’s pretty clear that religious conservatives’ failure to overlook the distinctives of Mitt’s religion and vote for him as a fellow social conservative cost the GOP the election by nominating a “correct” Christian like McCain, who failed as a politician AND as a social conservative in the eyes of many Republicans.

    My streetcorner interview question? “Would you support a liberal Christian who opposed all your moral and social beliefs over someone who agreed with you on all of them but was in what you’d consider a ‘cult’ or a non-Christian faith?” Now THAT is the question I’d love to see answered in South Carolina!

  • Brett

    I know the morning shows like Fox & Friends, Good Morning America and so on have looser standards in order to personalize the product and build audience rapport with the hosts, but Ms. Earnhardt’s statements go well beyond even the wider range they provide. She might have been clumsy and mis-stated an attempt to characterize the position of the people whose views she was explaining. But that’s the kind of thing you have to watch out for when you talk for a living.

    As for the Ferguson piece, I think Mollie’s comment at No. 8 shows the problem. Anyone relying on something to happen or not happen based on the judgment of journalists at local TV news operations is almost certain to be disappointed; the stations have replaced journalists with blow-dried newsmuppets whose job is to read about grass fires, automobile wrecks, convenience store robberies and certain other serious crimes.

  • tmatt


    What we are saying that this is a serious subject — doctrine — worthy of serious, accurate, balanced coverage based on quotes and printed info.

    That would be hot enough. Trust me.

    Talk radio. That is a firestorm waiting to happen, unless the host is very, very knowledgeable and ultra fair minded.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    To Ryan K: “Fox & Friends” is the morning show at the Fox News Network on cable/satellite. THIS item was done by a Memphis TV station that is a Fox entertainment network affiliate. Fox News Network featured a daily hour broadcast by a Mormon named Glenn Beck for over a year, and has no editorial control over the local “news” programming on the Memphis station.

    What this yahoo did in Memphis was enlist ignorant people on the street to help him mock Mormons. This was not a serious attempt to accurately understand what Mormons believe, or why. It is the equivalent of Al Jazeera sending a guy out on the streets of Mecca during the Haj to make fun of people who think that Jesus had to suffer and die in order for the omnipotent Allah to have mercy on mankind, or share a laugh about “those crazy Jews” who think the Sabbath starts on Saturday evening and not Friday.

    Frankly, this kind of immature religion bashing is one of the reasons that people leave churches like the Southern Baptists, which has, according to one of its senior national leaders, a reputation for ridiculing other people, and join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). According to one SBC report back in 1998, when the SBC held its national convention in Salt Lake City, they are losing as many as 40,000 people a year to the Mormons.

    If a TV station wants to increase understanding of a minority religion, they should interview people who actually understand those beliefs from the inside and can explain them accurately and in context. Would you go down to a mosque to find out what Baptists believe?

    At the very least, if you want to claim that Mitt Romney’s or Jon Huntsman’s or Harry Reid’s LDS beliefs adversely affected their performance in government office, you need to provide a concrete example from their service as Governor of Massachusetts, Governor of Utah and Ambassador to China, and Majority Leader in the US Senate. I have followed these kinds of attacks for years, and have yet to see any critic connect an LDS belief to a bad decision in office for any of these gentlemen. They have all made controversial calls, but no one has made a case that it was a specific Mormon doctrine that led to that decision. That is especially true in light of the fact that Reid and Romney are largely at opposite poles on most public policy issues. Obviously, Mormonism has not caused them to take opposing political positions.

    Those who want to make religious faith an issue in elections are rejecting the legacy of the Founding Fathers, who placed in the US Constitution, Article VI, the flat prohibition on using religion as a test to exclude any American from serving in Federal office. The idiots who broadcast this item have taken a stand against the freedom of religion that was placed in the First Amendment, and argued instead for making people in minority religions into second class citizens, the way Muslims treat Christians in most of the nations they dominate.

  • Ryan K.

    Raymond and tmatt,

    I largely agree with both of what you guys said. I only wanted to highlight that even the rebuttal by Joanna Brooks highlights that even the “serious” engagements on the topic of Mormonism are inaccurate and misleading.

    The evasiveness to honestly own such doctrines of advancing to becoming a god and getting a planet by Mormons often causes some of these problems in reporting. In no way am I condoning what this reporter did (it was very immature) but as I said before, the public is often aware of these doctrines and then sees the media as being unwilling to clearly state them or report on them. It raises a very important question of why the LDS church and its political candidates are so unwilling to just be honest about their beliefs.

    I am not judging their beliefs, or saying that someone should not be elected because of them, but I do think the media should probe why someone would want to be less then forthcoming about what they DO believe…

  • Niemsters

    Could you imagine if he asked questions mocking evangelical Christianity?
    ” would you vote for some one that thinks all humanity will be given over to Satan to burn eternally unless they say a certain prayer?”

    ” would you vote for someone who thinks that ghandi, china, and you’re non Christian mom is eternally burning?”

    “would you vote for someone whos church, until 50 years ago supported the KKK?”

    You can make questions that frame any religion in a negative light. Defending ignorance is only proof of your own ignorance.

  • Ryan K.

    Yeah Allie is right here Aaron in saying the evidence is overwhelming on the LDS church teaching the doctrine of “eternal progression.”

    Now this is exactly how journalism on the topic can be improved by having reporters and journalists interact with the direct source material on this matter instead of “man on the street” segments. As I said before, this immature “gotcha” stuff is usually a symptomatic sign of a failure or unwillingness for the media to really interact with the actual teachings of the Mormon church.

  • Dave

    Terry, you might check WildHunt(dot)org for a recent case of a media mammal being flip about Paganism. It’s in the UK but that does nothing to lower my blood pressure.

  • Jon in the Nati

    As I said before, this immature “gotcha” stuff is usually a symptomatic sign of a failure or unwillingness for the media to really interact with the actual teachings of the Mormon church.

    Probably true, but if you want to have a real conversation about it, I’d think you’d prefer not to use an anti-LDS website to bolster your claims.

  • Ryan K.

    I am not sure what “anti-Mormon” means??? It was just an article with primary source teachings of the LDS church on the teaching of Mormons advancing to become gods. I do want to have a real conversation, that is why I linked to an article with factual statements about what LDS Prophets have taught on the matter. What is anti about that?

    Facts are not anti anything. They just are. And that is why the media has a duty and obligation to report and question these things.

  • Joel Friedlander

    Just so that I can clear this up for the entire line of comments; Religion in America is the last bastion of unfettered hatred available to the bigots in America. Caveat: it is no longer acceptable to express hatred of the Jews or to criticize them openly (cf: criticism of Israel however is acceptable, in the vilest terms however).

    You can no long criticize people of color, unless they’re Muslims, and Asians are out of bounds as well, unless they too are Muslims. You can vilify Gay people, etc., with impunity however, and that is ALWAYS based upon religious beliefs.

    If you use religion as your basis, you can just say just about anything hateful about anyone. In the case of abortion, some religious groups who oppose it will cheer for people who murder other people. This is not limited to Christians however, many right wing looney Jews still venerate Dr. Baruch Goldstein, for murdering a large number of Muslims praying at the Tomb of Sarah and Abraham.

    So let us posit the following syllogism: All religious people are not fanatic idiots, but all fanatic idiots are religious (remember, Fascism and Communism, when in vogue, were actually secular religions). All we are seeing with attacks on the Muslims, Mormons, and other religious groups, is the expression of hatred for other people that must be repressed in civil discourse.

    Say, this entire election issue may bring out all the psychotic thinkers so we can identify them and avoid there influence. For example, last week some religious groups accused Michelle Bachmann (who I wouldn’t vote for to be dog catcher in my town), of belonging to a Church that believed that the Pope was the Anti Christ. If this kind of utterance continues we may see a realignment of the religious political groups in America. After all, It will be hard for the Catholics to make common cause with the Baptists if they know how the Baptists really feel about them.

    It is time to take religion completely out of the political arena. It is simple enough, just stop asking religious questions about people who are running for office. After all the Constitution of the United States, and every State Constitution states that there can be no religious qualification for any office in this country. Article 6 provides in part:

    “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

  • Niemsters

    I’d imagine it’s true of all religions that a doctorine requires more rhan quote from a leader, or something published. I doubt that all evangelicals agree with Jerry Falwell when he says crazy stuff like AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals. To oppose it would be like an Israelite jumping in the Red Sea to save one of Pharaoh’s charioteers … AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”

  • tmatt

    This is not the place for blow-by-blow battles on Mormon doctrine.

    Take them elsewhere, folks.

    Discussions of the difficulty of covering doctrinal stories of this kind? Bring it on.

    Spiking away.

  • Jettboy

    People like Ryan K. and his “oh so loving and professional” link is one of the reasons its so hard to do any real research about Mormons, and other religions for that matter, and what they believe. Technically it might be correct, but there are so many nuances, missing context, and even a lack of understanding how the members themselves understand the theology and levels of importance that all that is left is these kinds of reports.

    Do I agree with Joanna Brooks? Not really, but I don’t chalk that up to her obfuscating. She is a self-described Mormon liberal (yes we do have them even if they personally make me uncomfortable) who does see it the way she describes it. However, it is true that, “You could sit in your local Mormon Church for a month of Sundays and hear no reference to [owning a planet].” I’ll go a step farther and say you will never hear about it other than as a joke or off hand musings. I give New York Times credit (hurts to say that) for at least interviewing a Mormon when they had that anti-Mormon screed a few weeks ago. Now a debate from both sides would have been informative if a bit overheated.

  • Jettboy

    It was actually CNN and not New York Times. Same thing to me.

  • Ray Ingles

    Joel – There’s a “coffeehouse” group for non-journalism topics. There’s a long thread on the “Definition of Religion” here:!topic/getreligion-coffeehouse/WRTSjn_Rb2g

    In short, I disagree with several of your contentions – e.g. “all fanatic idiots are religious” or “Fascism and Communism, when in vogue, were actually secular religions”. And I’m an atheist.

    If you want to discuss it, that’s the place.

  • Paul

    I appreciate that most posters here have sought to be civil. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I also practice law. It has been my experience that many people treat “Mormons” like lawyers. The thinking goes something like:

    a. All lawyers are scum … well, except my lawyer, he is a pretty decent guy;
    b. “Mormons” are just plain weird … well, except my “Mormon” neighbor, he is a pretty decent guy.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the fourth largest church in the U.S. (more than 13M members worldwide). The reason this reporter can mock something that he proposes is Mitt Romney’s belief is precisely due to the fact that no one has ever heard LDS folks trouncing around preaching that you can have your own planet. A previous poster implied that it is dishonest (or at least less than truthful) for Romney to not “admit” he thinks he can have his “own” planet. As an LDS guy, I can’t admit that I will have “my own” planet because I simply do not believe that. I believe that God has promised (in the Bible) that his children can inherit everything He has. Am I weird because I believe that I am literally a child of God and can become like him? Is it weird to think that God literally means that his children will inherit His kingdom (everything) with Him? If you find that weird, so be it. However, please consider that I do not believe that I will “own” a planet anymore than I believe I will “own” anything that is not already God’s. Please also consider that my belief that everyone I meet is a child of God (and just as capable of inheriting God’s gifts through Jesus Christ) causes me to be just a little kinder and a little more decent than I might otherwise be. I propose (though I have obviously never been able to read Mitt’s Romney’s mind) that Mitt Romney is never going to “admit” on television that he will get his “own” planet because even if he is talking about his core religious beliefs, “owning” a planet is not what he thinks about. I propose that if he is like most “Mormons” he simply thinks about whether he is doing more good in the world today than he did yesterday.

  • Paul

    I apologize if anyone felt that my last post crossed too much into actual doctrinal debate. I hope that most readers will view my post as commentary on why the reporter is not likely to get any response from Mitt Romney on the reporter’s attempt to “sensationalize” a topic I suspect Mitt Romney does not even think about.

  • Karen

    It is the equivalent of Al Jazeera sending a guy out on the streets of Mecca during the Haj to make fun of people who think that Jesus had to suffer and die in order for the omnipotent Allah to have mercy on mankind, or share a laugh about “those crazy Jews” who think the Sabbath starts on Saturday evening and not Friday

    Uh Raymond, we crazy Jews do believe that Sabbath starts on Friday, at sundown.

    But this is as much a problem of confusing news with entertainment as anything else. And putting such screed on in the middle of a serious news discussion is terribly bad judgement.

  • Dave

    Fascism and Communism, when in vogue, were actually secular religions

    Calling such movements “secular religions” when trying to prove religion to be the root of all evil, is inventing evidence to fit a theory. It’s supposed to be done the other way ’round: invent theories that fit the evidence. (Of course, that’s harder.)

  • Jerry

    Talk radio. That is a firestorm waiting to happen,

    Talk radio: that’s a firestorm with gasoline and matches provided by the host with only very rare exceptions. Or perhaps we should call such talk show hosts firemen in the Fahrenheit 451 sense.

  • str

    “Uh Raymond, we crazy Jews do believe that Sabbath starts on Friday, at sundown.”

    And the Muslims do NOT think it starts on Friday because in Islam there is no Sabbath day, merely a day one traditionally attends a collective prayer at a mosque.

  • CarlH

    Regardless of the fact that Mr. Ferguson may be a “talk radio” personality, even of a certain “ilk,” the fact of the matter is that this aired as part of a local news broadcast. It is just too “convenient” (to borrow the SNL Church Lady’s often misapplied adjective) to try pigeon-holing his mockery as other than journalism–however bad or even reprehensible the “shtick” was. Once My Fox Memphis included him in the broadcast, it became part of that particular outlet’s attempt at practicing “journalism.” And a “grown up” (do they even have editors/directors/producers these days for such shows?) should have recognized a problem and acted upon it.

    I have no problem with the very real story about how Mitt Romney’s religion negatively affects his ability to attract voters in some important political constituencies. But in the midst of slicing and dicing doctrinal differences, some within the “problematic” constituencies often veer off into misinformed caricature, distortion and even ridicule, assuming somehow that holding up arcane and mostly exaggerated claims about someone else’s religion provides a substitute for a rational discussion about why holding any such belief (as opposed to that approved by their own orthodoxies) should inform any voter’s decision about a particular candidate. Inexplicably (other than by resort to the old axiom about “whose ox is being gored”), some of same people take offense when another media outlet, uses similar methods to tar their particular religious group or tradition or a fellow adherent.

  • MJBubba

    Well, I am a very conservative guy, and I live near Memphis, and I have heard Ben Ferguson’s show some. I lost patience with TV journalism a long time ago; they are all in the infotainment business. I also lost patience with talk radio, but I must say that Ben Ferguson was an improvement over his predecessor. Having Ben Ferguson appear on the local Fox affiliate to mock Mormonism in the context of a political analysis piece is sadly indicative of the garbage you might see on any of our local broadcast outlets during a lull in the local political squabbling. They have a few minutes they have to fill that might not all be needed to cover the police blotter of endless crime stories.

  • Rathje

    Ryan, Mormonism Research Ministries is a professional paid ministry devoted solely to refuting and arguing against Mormonism.

    That you would cite them as the go-to source for Mormon doctrine speaks volumes about your own objectivity here.

    As for the Ferguson antics, it’s silly and irrelevant to the political process. As Ryan points out, the stuff he skewers in his program here does have at least a tenuous basis in Mormon doctrine….

    The same way that the caricature “Christianity is the believe that eating the flesh of a 2000 year old Jewish zombie will help you live forever” has a tenuous basis in Christian doctrine as well.

    The question is not whether the doctrines exist in some form in the religious tradition or not – but whether the way in which they are being presented has the primary goal of distorting, sensationalizing, and trivializing the beliefs in question. In Ferguson’s case, this was clearly the goal. It misleads more than enlightens.

    On the trivialization issue – “God of this planet” is a prime example.

    LDS doctrine clearly states that God is the God of an infinite universe and master of “worlds without end.” Calling him just the “god of this planet” trivializes the scope of the object of Mormon worship. This makes it easier to mock Mormonism.

    It’s a clear case of decontexualizing a religious doctrine and isolating it from the rest of its fellow doctrines in order to make it a target.

  • str

    In contrast to most commenters I disagree that Ferguson’s prime objective was to ridicule Mormonism – he tried to illustrate the problems faced by Mormon candidates such as Mitt Romney may face due to their religion.

    And he did so in a funny, maybe too funny, manner.


    sure Ferguson understates the case but does “God of his own universe” really make matters better.

  • Seth R.

    Of course it does str.

    “Get your own planet” makes it sound like you’re joining the army or something.

    “Here’s your rifle son, your combat boots… and your planet.”

  • http://none Hyrum A

    Too bad media shows such as Ferguson’ and Ainsley Earhardt try to campaign by bashing. Insulting a religion is in poor taste and inappropriate. Perhaps they don’t understand that viewers buy the products that sponsor their shows. Certainly I will buy less of theirs. Also, it shows how little they know and the lack of study and preparation on their part. Like so many media stars they grab the glamor bashing of others and make it their own without thinking. I would like to see a campaign based on facts, but I know that is non-American! When I served in the army I fought for the very rights these people are now abusing. Sorry about that!

  • str


    I did not see these two as bashing anyone.

    And “bashing” is not un-American at all, it is as old as the country…