Jay Evensen: Why Bloomberg Businessweek's Mormon finance cover was unethical and offensive
One of the four pillars of the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics is to "minimize harm." Specifically, "Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect."
I was on the SPJ board of directors when the code was adopted. It represents a rock-solid set of guidelines that ought to guide every self-respecting reporter in his or her work.
I'm also a Mormon. I can tell you from a personal perspective that the cover on this week's Bloomberg Businessweek left me feeling thoroughly disrespected.
Politics is a full-contact sport. I get that. As the presidential race unfolds, so does the heavy artillery. This is not a popular time to be super rich or to receive tax breaks, and the magazine weighed in with an examination of the tax-exempt wealth of Mitt Romney's church.
Not all Mormons support Romney. That's the sort of nuance that can get lost in a campaign. His religion remains a mystery to many. But is the magazine's cover depicting a resurrected John the Baptist restoring the priesthood to church founder Joseph Smith Jr. and Olivery Cowdrey with the words, "..And thou shalt build a shopping mall, own stock in Burger King, and open a Polynesian themepark in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax..." a fair illustration?
Let me tell you about my grandfather, Einar Strand. He lived his entire life in Norway. During World War II he led the Mormon congregation in Oslo without any contact with or help from any church leaders in Salt Lake City or anywhere outside his besieged nation.
I have a compilation at home of a magazine he edited during that time to bring comfort to church members and to teach doctrine. Twice the Gestapo arrested him. He worked for the underground and was a constant and anonymous source of frustration to the Nazis who occupied his country.
One of those arrests has a special place in our family history. He had promised a church member in the hospital to give her a special priesthood blessing of healing at a certain time. His Nazi captors took him to Victoria Terrasse, their headquarters in Oslo, and stuck him in a dark cell.
In that cell he prayed that God would release him so he could use his priesthood to bless the woman he had promised to see. His Nazi captors did so, without explanation and in time for that appointment. That sort of thing didn't happen very often in Nazi prisons, and grandfather always saw it as a miracle.
Einar Strand was the priesthood leader for Oslo's Mormon congregation during an especially dark time, and church members looked to him for hope precisely because they believed the priesthood he held had been miraculously restored to earth through angelic messengers of the sort Businessweek decided to depict for sport.
Bloomberg's story about church finances is one thing. We can have a discussion about whether it falls short of providing a full and accurate picture, but church finances are fair game.
Instead, however, the conversation now focuses on a cover image that cartoonishly insults the depiction of something my grandfather's congregation, and millions of Mormons today, consider a seminal and sacred event.
The cover devalues the work of the piece's author, Caroline Winter. It makes the editors' antipathy toward the Mormon religion apparent, and objective reporting doesn't thrive well with preconceived prejudice.
Minimize harm? As Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, which is dedicated to excellence and integrity in journalism, told the Deseret News, "I thought we were past ridiculing sacred images of other faiths, even radical Muslims, let alone our fellow Americans."
For some, apparently, that journey remains to be trod.