The FBI's Ten Most Wanted listing for fugitive Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Warren Jeffs late last week has not only turned up the heat for those pursuing him but has again created media confusion with the Salt Lake City-based LDS Church.
In a news release Thursday, the LDS Church said increased media attention to polygamist groups, "particularly those living in southern Utah and Arizona," too often "refer to these groups as 'Mormons' or 'Mormon sects.' " Such references are "misleading and confusing to the vast majority of audiences who rightfully associate the term 'Mormon' with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," it said.
Church spokesman Dale Bills said LDS Public Affairs has fielded "a number of questions" from media presumably both national and international following Jeffs' Ten Most Wanted listing along with Osama bin Laden and other high-profile fugitives. Reporters have called for the church's comment, though "there is no reason why the church would wish to comment about a legal action concerning a group with which it has no affiliation or connection," the release said.
The statement cited two examples of media confusion, including a report by CNN on Tuesday that superimposed the face of Jeffs over an image of the LDS Church's Salt Lake Temple. "Again, this implies a connection between the two," the statement said. "This is not just careless editing but highly offensive to members" of the LDS Church.
It also said Fox News aired a recent story featuring former New Jersey Superior Court Judge Andrew Napolitano, now a news analyst with Fox, about the political risks he believes Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is running by pressing for prosecution of polygamist leaders, implying that "the church and its members would be opposed to the actions of the Utah attorney general."
"Such an interpretation is wholly unjustified and is inconsistent with the previous comments of church President Gordon B. Hinckley," whose 1998 statement said the church "has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy" and excommunicates members who do.
A quick scan of world and national news headlines on the Internet about the Top Ten listing shows similar mischaracterizations.
A UPI story datelined Salt Lake City on May 9 said Shurtleff has begun "an organized crime investigation into the renegade Mormon church ruled by fugitive polygamist Warren Jeffs."
A story in The Australian in Sydney reported "the bizarre Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints a breakaway group of hard-line Mormons" as the group led by Jeffs.
The church's statement said "there is no such thing as a 'Mormon fundamentalist,' nor are there 'Mormon sects,' " and says "the inclusion of the word 'Mormon' is misleading and inaccurate."
Some members of polygamist communities refer to themselves as "Mormon fundamentalists," insisting it was the mainstream LDS Church and not their groups that strayed from LDS Church founder Joseph Smith's original teachings.
The statement also noted that The Associated Press Stylebook, which is followed by news organizations, says, "The term Mormon is not properly applied to the other Latter Day Saints churches that resulted from the split after (Joseph) Smith's death."
The confusion comes on the heels of another media headache for the church just weeks ago with the premiere of the HBO TV series, "Big Love," about a fictional modern polygamist family living in Salt Lake City.
The church fielded myriad inquiries and sent a letter to local church leaders across the country warning of the potential confusion and asking for help in clarifying its position.
Church Public Affairs officials also worked tirelessly to distance the church from confusion with polygamist groups in the months preceding the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.The LDS Church has dealt with lingering perceptions about its views and doctrine on the subject since 1890, when it formally disavowed the practice of polygamy begun in the mid-19th century.