Q&A on Prophets and Obits:
Q: What are the main problems with the obit that you’re hearing about?
A: Most people are frustrated with tone—which is a bit amorphous, but “tone” can also mean “something that I can’t put my finger on.” I think they’re right.
Q: Are Mormons just upset that their prophet wasn’t put in the best possible light? Is some of this a little silly?
A: I think so. We’re human, and we care about our groups. Every tribe cares about their tribal artifacts, and our prophet is a big one: make fun of us on Broadway, sure, but a less-than-glowing obit on our prophet is a bridge too far. That said, also think that many of the responses have been thoughtful, and make points that merit consideration.
Q: What are some of those—the things people didn’t like that you agreed with?
A: I don’t think it was very good journalism, to be frank. The NYT sets a standard, and I don’t think it lived up to the standard—and not just because of tone. It felt like the writer went through the last 10 years of articles about Mormons, and asked the religion reporter for any tips. It wasn’t inaccurate, but it wasn’t a very full picture.
Are there some who wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than hagiography? Sure. But it’s also frustrating, to some extent, that a pretty decent private person gets short shrift because of his church’s conservative stances on things, but not a word about his private morality. Instead, it became about the church he ran, and there was next-to-nothing about the man himself—another difference with Coppins’ obit. It didn’t feel like a real-life Mormon was consulted. (Note: a friend points out that they got Richard Bushman. Fair enough. Good quotes from him–but it still didn’t feel quite right. Getting two quotes from Bushman isn’t the same as asking a devout Mormon if you’ve captured the essence.)
Q: It sounds like you thought it was an empty piece in a journalistic sense—do you think the worries about tone are overblown then?
A: Anyone who is shocked that the Times leans left is being silly—but just because it’s foreseen doesn’t mean it’s the right way to go. The Times sets an editorial, journalistic standard, and I thought they used the obit to editorialize a little more than they should. That’s what editorial pages are for. The reaction was overblown, but I’m not sure that it was wrong.
Q: The response to these critics has included the point that it was factually accurate. What do you make of that?
A: Factual accuracy is a pretty low bar. A friend of mine, a writer, pointed out the interesting difference between the Hefner obit and the Monson obit: Hefner’s was “bad thing” followed by “rejoinder” whereas Monson’s was “good thing” followed by “rejoinder.” The last note wins out, and it’s a pretty transparent way to frame the article. People left thinking that a good man probably wasn’t all that good, while they left Hefner or “Che” or “Castro” thinking that a bad man maybe hadn’t been so bad.
Q: Do you think the comparison between Castro, Hefner, Chavez, etc. and Monson is fair?
A: I do. The Times has a pretty obvious bias, and it really shows through when you take a peek at the comparisons. I have a friend who was angry that the LDS church’s teaching contribute to gay teen suicide in Utah (which I can understand) and yet Mormons are frustrated with Monson’s treatment by a leftist news organization—to him, this whole thing seems a bit silly. I wonder if that friend was frustrated by Fidel Castro’s history of sending LGBT folks to concentration camps. I might have missed it in his obit (Castro’s was lengthy) but the overall tone was pretty glowing.
And the result is that people who already like the church didn’t love the obit, and people who take issue with the church thought that the obit was bold, courageous, and daring. I think we pick and choose, based on our tribal affiliation. When the NYT publishes a small book-of-an-obit that fawns over “just-barely-left-of-center-Fidel Castro,” red-teamers become indignant that the NYT appears to have a blue streak. It’s like, well yeah. Duh.
Q: Milton Friedman was a pretty right-of-center figure, and got a pretty fair shake from the Times—and that was fairly recent. Are you sure your critique is fair?
A: I think so, but maybe I’m wrong. In some ways, an elite academic economist Nobel prize winner who happens to be conservative is closer, tribally speaking, than a devout Mormon leader. PhD economists with right-leaning ideas are “our people, but with strange ideas.” The feeling I got from reading the obit on Monson was that he wasn’t “our people.”
I think the culture wars have also intensified since Friedman’s heyday. It’s just different today than it was then, and even then, Friedman didn’t say a word about abortion or gay marriage—he talked about free markets and tax rates.
There’s a diversity question too: Friedman’s obit was quite strong—but maybe it’s easier to find a thoughtful academic economist—albeit a free marketer—than it is to find a devout Mormon. One of the critiques of the obit that I agreed with was that a Mormon should’ve had a chance to look at the obit before publishing. Had it been someone from a different racial, religious, or other group, I think the Times would have prioritized that kind of treatment—or they would’ve been right to.
Q: Do you think there’s a diversity problem at the Times?
A: I haven’t a clue. That’s a big charge to levy, and I’d rather not. I think we’re all more subject to the problem of diversity in general, however: we define diversity in too narrow a way. As was said about Bill Clinton’s cabinet (and I believe CNN) “we have someone from each racial group—and every one of them is from Stanford!”
Q: Can you satisfy the tribal crowds? Can you be both accurate and fair?
A: Yes. People did it, and not just Coppins. It’s easy to say “Monson, beloved by Mormons worldwide, and revered as a prophet, had his fair share of controversy.” You’re not being false when you say that he was revered and respected. It changes the tone of the article, and keeps things feeling respectful-but-pointed. You can acknowledge the feelings of his followers while still asking hard questions.
Q: Some feel that the NYT is just showing some real candor and research. Do you agree?
A: In some ways. I like that it talked about transparency in church history, and I thought it did a good job with covering the major politically salient points—but if you’re “doing great research” without consulting any Mormons, that win comes across as hollow.
Q: They didn’t consult any Mormons?
A: I don’t think so, but they didn’t say for sure. The correction to the obit explained their process, and said that they’d asked the obit writer to speak with the head of the religion desk. It didn’t say that they normally consult with someone of the faith, which felt like a pretty obvious omission—had they consulted with one, they probably would’ve included it.
Q: What did you think of the correction?
A: It was mostly an explanation, and also mostly a non-apology. To be fair, I think they needed both parts. Writing obits is hard, and there’s a lot of context that readers needed to hear. It may come across as tone deaf, but I thought a lot of the explanation was right—it’s a hard process, and we do the best we can. I don’t think that changes the bias, however, and there were some things that needed apologizing for beyond what they did.
Q: Is the bias explicit? Do you think the NYT has something against the church?
A: I’m not sure that they need to—It could be that deep, but I doubt it. It’s worldview bias: when you gather a bunch of people who think the same way, their “unbiased obit” is not actually unbiased. It’s just the best that a biased person could pull off. NPR does this all the time, when they do an interview with a Trump supporter—you’re waiting to hear the interviewer put on their best Crocodile Hunter voice and say “and now we’ve captured one in their native habitat.” They’re trying to do an honest job, but they can’t actually pull it off because it isn’t a part of their reality. It’s exotic to them. It’s foreign.
Q: You’ve said that you like that Atlantic’s obit more—could it be because McKay Coppins is an LDS writer?
A: In part, yes—he was more glowing, too, so I’d expect more Mormons to like what he had to say. But I also thought it was a much deeper obituary. It was more personal, it was more honest, and it still covered some of the things of real texture. There was more emotional catharsis, and in more directions—critical and kind.
Also worth noting, Coppins’ commentary on Twitter has also been fantastic. He’s been funny and on point. “Do we normally publish obits about things people *didn’t* do? Can you imagine, ‘Hugh Hefner, who rebuffed calls to stop publishing misogynistic pornography, died at 91 today.'” That was a paraphrase, but he’s spot on. You don’t make an obit with a “things they didn’t do” line. It felt weird, and was probably a shot at the church–deliberate or otherwise.
Q: NPR published an obit, and then published a note about Evangelicals’ and Mormons’ theological and political differences and similarities. What did you think of those, respectively?
A: The obit was better, and pulled off a fairly neutral tone. The Evangelicals vs. Mormons piece prompted some serious eye-rolling. Both Mormons and Evangelicals acknowledge our theological differences—it’s the reporters who are always shocked that the wacky social conservatives don’t believe the same things. Most churches have good things to say about the “ecumenical spirit” so long as it’s just happy talk (or so long as ecumenism means “you join my church” but not vice versa.)
There was another nit-pick that got under my skin, though, and that was that the article was billed as “Mormons and Evangelicals don’t always agree” when the article was actually all about how Evangelicals don’t like Mormon theology. When President Monson died, a few Evangelicals got a little nasty and talked about false religions dragging people down to hell and the like, and that seemed to be some good clickbaity fodder for an article. I don’t recall reading any Mormons takes on Evangelical theology. We’re both pretty comfortable that we’re right, they’re wrong, etc., but it seemed that NPR had decided that Evangelicals are the experts on Mormon beliefs.
Am I an impossible to please Mormon reader? Probably. But that’s okay. They’ll get over it—and hopefully, they’ll get better because of it.
Also, they said that Mormons are reliable Trump voters. That’s true, but misleading. Mormons are very reliable conservative voters (especially if they’re older than 40). Trump had problems with Mormons generally and specifically: Romney, Flake, Lee, etc. There was a missed opportunity for some nuance in there.
Q: Do we really get to control the narrative? He was a public figure, wasn’t he?
A: I don’t buy that argument. I wouldn’t if it were a prominent figure from another group. If you don’t think he’s being treated fairly, say something. I think that the signatures and the petitions are pretty provincial, and probably an overreaction—but you can see peoples’ true colors based on who overreacts right back. “I CAN’T BELIEVE THESE MORMONS ARE OVERREACTING ABOUT THIS TINY LITTLE THING” lets you know just how a person feels on the topic.
As for him being a public figure, yes, he was—and if they were talking about him in an honest way, say for example about his messy personal life, that’s just something we’d have to deal with. But they didn’t. They took great pains to avoid a lot of good, to focus on a very narrow set of obvious talking points.
Q: What about the “we should look in the mirror” argument?
Q: I have a hard time arguing against introspection—I think the world could use a few doses of it. (I should be clear, in an honest way, that I also think that some Mormons are living a good life and yet take introspection to an unhealthy place. I don’t think that’s what you’re getting at, but it deserves a mention.) But in this instance? All that means is “I agree with the Times.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s only compelling if you also agree with the Times. I’d wager that most Mormons don’t. And for what it’s worth, many Mormons who do think like the Times still felt that the obit was shallow.
Again, I think this was shoddy journalism, bias aside. I’m not angry that they mentioned female ordination or gay rights. I’m slightly irritated that they skipped a lot of really good journalistic meat to go for a few obvious pot shots. A 90-year-old man with an extensive personal ministry, but they can only find time to talk about how he didn’t ordain women or bend on gay policies?
Q: Could it be that’s just what is most important to them?
A: Precisely so. I think if I told the editorial board that he’d lived a good, clean life, they’d shrug. It just isn’t a big deal to them. The issues of morality, to them, are equality for women and tolerance for LGBT folks—so talk of a moral life is at best boring, and at worst hypocritical. Haidt’s work on this morality stuff is crucial here. We’re not arguing in the same moral universe with each other, so there’s going to be a lot of talking past each other. That, to them, is the meat.
I think many Mormons walked away feeling like the writer didn’t much care for the subject—the person, or the church. If you feel like someone holds your faith in contempt, that’s a big hurdle to get over. It could be that they hate us explicitly, or that they find us boring—it doesn’t matter. What people sensed from that article was some form of mild contempt—disinterest, dismissiveness, lazy objectification, etc.
Q: Putting on the persecution complex, are we? Don’t you think this is a pretty petty injustice to get exercised about?
A: I don’t love the “stop whining” message to Mormons, because it mostly just means “I disagree with you.” They aren’t protesting in the streets, they’re clicking “like” on Facebook. Frankly, I think this is an entirely healthy way to deal with something you don’t like. No one is getting hurt, we’re getting our feelings out in social media, and we’re pushing the dialogue further. Besides, I’ve never heard anyone with a grievance have it meaningfully addressed with the words “calm down.” Let people process. They’ll learn something from it, and everything will be okay.
Now, do I think it’s cute and provincial that they’re signing petitions? Yes. I think it’s adorable. But I’m hardly bothered by it—if you are, it probably just is some hidden motivated reasoning. Leave people alone. Let them figure this out.
Q: Greg Trimble said that President Monson wouldn’t be making a fuss.
A: Heh, I doubt he knows President Monson that well. I’m not a fan of putting people on a pedestal the way he does. That may be ironic, but it felt too saccharine, too DeseretBookish. President Monson was a man. He prefer to think that he has a temper, he read the Times obit from heaven and let a few Mormon curse-words fly—some “darn” and “flippin” to be sure. (He was in the navy, after all.) It’s more inspirational to remember that these are real people than it is to polish them to perfection.
But as for the obit, I don’t see people making a fuss in a way that is destructive. Provincial and cute, maybe, but not offensive or embarrassing. People are grieving for a beloved figure, and trying to figure things out. Give them the space to. If “this isn’t really a big deal” then their response probably “isn’t really a big deal” either.
Q: Ben Shapiro said that the NYT hates religion. Agree/disagree?
A: He’s overstating things, which isn’t unexpected, but I’d still say he’s mostly wrong. I remember once asking my dad what he thought about the media bias, and his response was thoughtful: the problem isn’t the political bias, it’s the bias towards a good story. It’s about sensationalization. Maybe the issue is not that the Times hates Mormons, or even that it has a soft spot for lefties—it’s that all news organizations like a juicy story.
President Monson lived a very boring life. There aren’t many controversies for someone who keeps their nose clean, so instead they talk about the church’s stuff. Journalists may have a soft-spot for Castro because he’s a communist revolutionary, but he’s also a fascinating character. Perhaps the real insult isn’t that writers don’t hate religion, they just don’t find it interesting.
It’s too bad, too. In today’s world, I think a privately faithful, personally moral person is a pretty interesting story—church stance aside.