The Deseret News as the Church’s political voice?

The New York Times ran an article last Sunday titled “Mormon-Owned Paper Stands With Immigrants.” It described how the Deseret News’ often sympathetic writing about illegal immigrants has incurred the wrath of it’s “conservative, mostly Mormon, readers.” The article claims that any editorial the paper runs carries the Church’s unofficial seal of approval and hence has the power to shape opinions in the largely Mormon Utah legislature, which could be particularly important right now since the legislature is considering a “zero-tolerance” illegal immigration law like Arizona’s. Incidentally, the main sponsor of the Arizona law is a Mormon.

I doubt the Deseret News editorial page has that much power to sway the legislature, but I am pleased to see the paper taking a nuanced, even generous, position toward Latino immigrants. And I think the article raises some interesting questions, particularly in light of the fact that Prop 8 showed that the Church can send a powerful political message when it wants to. Some questions I have, but don’t have answers to are:

1 – Have expectations about the Church’s ability and/or willingness to impact political issues changed since Proposition 8?

2 – Is the Church seen as a powerful political force?

3 – When the Church does not speak out on a political issue, does that indicate tacit approval of the status quo?

4 – Does the Church deliberately and strategically use backchannels to sway public opinion? Is it doing so now with regards to immigration? If so, what are the advantages of backchannels compared with straightforward political mobilization a la Prop 8?

5 – Is immigration an issue that should be heavily informed by religion?

6 – If the answer to 4 is yes, then Joseph Cannon of the Deseret News is right when he aims to challenge readers to reflect on immigration through the lens of Mormonism. He said “What are the two commandments? Love God and love your neighbor. These people are our neighbors – incontestably, by any definition, they are our neighbors.” So how do Mormons who embrace the two great commandments reconcile them with immigration? I realize liberals sometimes challenge conservatives on issues like welfare and immigration by claiming they aren’t being charitable, and that must get really old for conservatives. So assuming that conservatives are coming at this issue from a position of charity, how do they feel the commandment to love your neighbor fits into the picture? (And please, don’t just say it’s about following the law. Mormons have been known to break laws they find immoral – see polygamy.)

7 – What does it mean to Latino Church members to see favorable editorials in a Church-owned newspaper? Are they anxious to see the Church take sides on this, or do they see the Church as simply for saving souls, not for jumping into legal issues?

If you have an opinion on any or all of these questions, let’s hear it.

  • Michael

    I don’t think there is a doubt in the world that the Church is using DN to get out messages of all sorts. As Mr. Cannon stated in the NY Times article, there is no way that a DN editorial is going to go contrary to the opinion of the First Presidency and the Twelve. it just ain’t gonna happen. Ever.

    The Church is much more liberal on the immigration (as all churches are) than its Utah, Arizona, and Idaho membership.

  • Clark

    It’s not just the Deseret News. KSL, especially Doug Wright, has been very vocal on the immigrant issue.

  • michelle

    I think I read somewhere that Mark Willes said that the Church was not consulted for his opinion piece, but that they are careful to not publish something that they think the Church would object to.

    I think we shouldn’t conflate news venues with the official Church stance, though. Things are confusing enough out there, imo.

  • Seth R.

    The Deseret News is in an interesting position given the decline of newspapers in general. With advertising revenues falling, it may be expected that the paper will become more and more beholden to its religious backer. This will raise some interesting questions about the objectivity of the Deseret News and what its mission vis a vis the LDS Church should be.

    Here’s an interesting article comparing the Deseret News to the Christian Science Monitor:

    If the Deseret News can retain its journalistic credibility, it could find itself in a unique position with a global audience as its competing newspapers slowly die off.

  • Mark D.

    There are some significant downsides to this. For one thing it means that the Deseret News will continue to be the worst place in the world to get news related to the LDS Church. Non-correlated news that is.

    It is similar to the weekly Church News insert. It includes any and all things that would fit nicely in a public relations brochure, but not anything else. With a few exceptions, that makes it kind of boring.

    The third problem is more subtle. If a newspaper is going to adopt an agenda and become more of an advocate for one position or another, it needs to do so out in the open, and not in some sort of disguised neutrality. The DN has had a slightly left of center political slant on any number of issues for a long time. Being open about that sort of approach is a good idea.

    But it will not build any trust if the DN, like many media outlets, just uses that slant to color its coverage, rather than actively advocate its position from first principles. The DN does have local columnists who do that on occasion, but their arguments have hardly been a tour de force. More like man on the street sort of stuff.

    Maybe the DN doesn’t care, but more conservative readers tend to dislike reading a “newspaper” where all the articles are written from the point of view that they are wrong, uncharitable, and implicitly out of touch with the gospel. It will take a lot of actual persuasion (not just outright manipulation) to change anyone’s mind in that regard, and the risk is always that readers will just tune DN out, and turn to sources that give their political opinions a modicum of respect.

    That is the whole problem with “engaged” journalism – it generally only works when you are preaching to the choir. You have to become an actual journal of opinion, with carefully presented arguments to avoid driving away all the people who get the impression you are turning into a propaganda sheet.

  • oh snap

    The church is only backing this because if they don’t they will lose thousands and thousands of new members in the Central and South American countries. My cousin is in Mexico on a mission now and they have been instructed to tell people they are from Utah, NOT Arizona (where he lives). The church is as bad as the democrats on this issue…handing out freebies in order to win votes. They’ll say whatever increases their membership enough. I guess there weren’t enough Mormon gays to sway their opinion on that prop 8.

  • bill

    The News has long been a voice for the church in Utah, both in what it said and what it did not say. The church did not influence every editorial opinion, but everyone always knew where the church stood on certain key issues such as abortion. As the church’s newspaper in Utah, of course it was expected that the paper would reflect the church’s positions and beliefs. What took many people by surprise was the hiring of the former head of the Republican Party as its publisher. That is when the paper lost credibility.

  • Christy

    Interesting questions Emily. I wish I had insights!