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Mormon Media Observer: This is one of many 'Mormon moments'

By Lane Williams

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, July 18 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

Run an Internet search for “Mormon moment,” and it becomes clear that reporters and commentators think America is in one.

The reasons, of course, are obvious — two Mormon candidates for the presidency and an award-winning musical on Broadway about the Book of Mormon. To say nothing of the run of Mormon basketball icon Jimmer Fredette.

All of these stories continue to generate intense coverage of the faith. And as the press is today, when a topic in the news receives broad attention, when minor stories happen involving that topic, those minor stories also become news in ways they wouldn’t have become in other times. Attention seems to spiral for a time.

I don’t know if some reporters like to think this is the first Mormon moment, but I would beg to differ with those who do. In their long journey, Mormons have had many such moments where unusual attention has been drawn to their faith, some reasonably favorable and generous, as today’s coverage is, some hostile and even tragic.

America had a significant Mormon moment four years ago when Mitt Romney ran the first time.

The Olympics were a Mormon moment in 2002, when news organizations around the world reported on the faith that makes up the largest share of the population in Utah.

There was a Mormon moment in 1978 when President Spencer W. Kimball received a revelation that all worthy men should receive the priesthood.

Though the coverage of George Romney’s Mormonism wasn’t as broad as his son’s coverage, it nevertheless constituted a Mormon moment, as numerous articles talked of his devotion to his faith and as prominent national news organizations used that time to write long stories about the Mormons.

The 1950s included several small Mormon moments as leading publications like Reader’s Digest talked of the way of life of Mormons.

Was it a Mormon moment when Reed Smoot spent more than three years undergoing intense hearings in Washington before he could take his seat in Congress in the early 20th century? Though a painful period in church history given the type of attention it garnered, that seems a Mormon moment.

As scholar Kathleen Flake has pointed out, the controversy generated in that Mormon moment helped create what comprises one of the largest, if not the largest, sets of records in the National Archives in Washington.

Mormon pioneers had a decade of the most painful coverage in the 1880s leading up to the Manifesto. Writers of many sorts wrote of the Mormon movement, usually in mocking tones. That was a kind of extended Mormon moment.

It was a Mormon moment when Thomas L. Kane used his considerable influence to draw attention to the Latter-day Saints’ plight as they fled Nauvoo and moved West, drawing for a blessed time gentle and generous press coverage of the Latter-day Saints.

It seems a kind of mini-Mormon moment when the great newspaperman Horace Greeley came to Salt Lake City and interviewed Brigham Young. Historians believe it may have been the first question-and-answer format in newspaper history and may have been the largest-selling New York Tribune to that time.

As historian LeGrande Baker has pointed out, the political intrigue surrounding the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith was of intense national interest. Scores covered the murder of the prophet at Carthage. That was a kind of Mormon moment.

It was even a Mormon moment before there were Mormons officially. Though the coverage was regional, the publication of the Book of Mormon generated considerable attention in the press. One Palmyra newspaperman even published a mocking version of the Book of Mormon. The coverage was such that when the great newspaperman James Gordon Bennett sailed up the Erie Canal to the Palmyra region just after the Saints had left for Ohio, Bennett implied that knowledge of the Latter-day Saints was widespread.

I suppose reporters mean by Mormon moment that a different tone and kind of attention of coverage has emerged for the Latter-day Saints, one different from earlier periods of coverage. Perhaps that is true.

But what is amazing to me is how this beautiful movement that started with an obscure farm boy has become a national story of great, repeated intensity. Say what you will about Joseph Smith’s prophetic gifts, he clearly said that the gospel would rise and that his own name would be known for good and evil across the world. That has happened for all to see in this moment.

It also seems easy to see that this Mormon moment will pass. And just as easy to think that another will rise in its place sometime down the road.

It has always been thus with Mormonism and the media, and that trend seems to show little signs of abating.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communications at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion and religion and politics.

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