Mormon Media Observer: Media portrayals of Mormonism far better than a century ago

Published: Sunday, Aug. 7 2011 2:20 p.m. MDT

Alfred Henry Lewis was what most famous reporters were in the early 20th century and what top reporters remain today: smart and well-connected, while covering the biggest stories of his generation to broad acclaim.

After serving for a time as a prosecutor in Cleveland, Lewis traveled west and became a newspaperman, first in New Mexico and then at the Las Vegas Optic. He set up a law practice in Kansas City and became friends with leading newspapermen.

Eventually, he began writing popular short stories and novels based on his travels, including the seven-part Western, “Wolfville.” His fiction writing led him back into newspapering, and he became the Washington Bureau Chief of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. He became friends with Theodore Roosevelt.

Included among his reporting were stories about New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall political machine and several articles about the original “Trial of the Century,” the celebrated murder of architect Stanford White by a jealous lover Harry Thaw in a shooting that occurred during the performance of a play in a crowded, popular New York theater.

In short, Lewis had a successful and important career.

Four years before his death in 1915, Lewis wrote a three-part series for Cosmopolitan magazine, what was then a magazine of higher culture.

Lewis’ assignment came near the end of the muckraking era of American journalism. It's what we journalists today often celebrate as a high point in the history of journalism.

The era included the writing of Ida Tarbell in that era, whose exposés about the Standard Oil Company set the standard for excellent journalism to this day and led to anti-trust laws.

There was Nellie Bly’s faking madness that led to her placement in a mental hospital. Her reporting led to reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill.

There was Lincoln Stephens stellar reporting about corruption in government.

There was Upton Sinclair’s work about the meatpacking industry that led to the modern FDA.

There was Jacob Riis remarkable photography and reporting on “how the other half lives” that led to an understanding about the wrenching poverty in New York neighborhoods.

Then there was the reporting of Lewis in Cosmopolitan – the Viper on the Hearth – an account of Mormonism’s supposed dangerous influence on America.

In a vaguely anti-Semitic portrayal of Latter-day Saints, Lewis portrayed Mormonism as a threat to the financial and moral values of the United States.

During a time of relative poverty in the church, photo illustrations in the magazine portrayed President Joseph F. Smith in kingly robes taking obeisance from those holding much of the nation’s money. Lewis wrote, “Wall and Broad Street can be brought to their knees at a word from prophet Smith.”

His concluding thought: “Take my last warning. You as a good American should watch narrowly the Mormon church. It is a national cancer and if you would have the nation live, you must set about its cure.”

It has been 100 years since Lewis wrote of Mormonism in Cosmopolitan.

This has been another week of on-going and unusual attention to Mormonism — and to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints this week. (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no affiliation with this polygamous sect.) CNN included an article about Mormonism in the presidential campaign, the Wall Street Journal had a front-page story, and many news outlets included information about the trial of Warren Jeffs.

In such a week, it can be useful to see how far journalism and Mormonism have come in their relationship.

While we honor the courage of many those early muckrakers, the era’s reporting on Mormonism was, at worst, overt bigotry.

Today, while stories about the faith are sometimes uncomfortable and dotted with occasional stereotype — such as the use of the word cult and the use of polygamy as a way of describing historic Mormonism — there are accuracies as well.

While mistakes are worthy of correction by such faithful groups as the new Mormon Defense League, there remains important fairness in much news coverage today. Nothing really compares with the vitriol and absurdity of Alfred Henry Lewis’ Viper on the Hearth of 100 years ago.

In the midst of all the attention we Mormons are receiving, there is much for which we can be grateful in the modern professionalism of American news reporting.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication 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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