Criticism follows Businessweek cover on Mormon Church finances

Looking closely at LDS Church businesses, finances

Published: Thursday, July 12 2012 6:43 p.m. MDT

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is providing background information on its finances in a new article on the LDS Newsroom website.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

The new Bloomberg Businessweek magazine cover on LDS Church finances drew broad-based criticism Thursday.

"The Businessweek cover is in such poor taste it is difficult to even find the words to comment on it," said Michael Purdy, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Sadly, the cover is a reflection of the bias and speculative nature of the article itself. It is narrow and incomplete, omitting, for instance, a good deal of information given on how church resources are used.

"The article misses the mark and the cover is obviously meant to be offensive to many, including millions of Latter-day Saints."

The magazine hits newsstands Friday, but the cover illustration was released Thursday. It caricatures a classic LDS painting of what to Mormons is a sacred visitation by John the Baptist to early LDS leaders Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. The cover created instant and broad reaction across news, political, business and religious websites. The cover headline reads "Inside the Mormon Empire." The accompanying illustration portrays John the Baptist telling Smith and Cowdery to "build a shopping mall, own stock in Burger King, and open a Polynesian theme park in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax," to which Joseph responds: "Hallelujah."

"As someone who has been watching the coverage of politics and faith and more specifically of 'the Mormon question' for the last year, I see this as a great step backward," said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a school dedicated to excellence and integrity in journalism. "I thought we were past ridiculing sacred images of other faiths, even radical Muslims, let alone our fellow Americans. I doubt the story is as out of whack as the cover, but on its own, the cover crosses way over the line between commentary and bigotry."

Faith leaders also criticized the cover.

"This cover ridicules respected spiritual leaders and the Mormon faith by distorting a picture of sacred value and respect and turning it into a caricature, said Richard Mouw, president of the Fuller Seminary, a graduate-level seminary for Evangelicals. To be clear, a journalistic examination and analysis regarding the financial practices of any group is always fair game. But if such mocking and distortion were focused on Evangelicals or Catholics, we would call foul. For the Mormon community--and all of us--this is out of bounds.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, posted a comment about the cover on his Facebook page: "This is simply disgusting."

"It would be nice if news outlets were more sensitive to religion," said Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. "It would also be nice if we had world peace."

Winston recently co-authored a survey report that found most Americans consider media coverage of religion too sensationalized.

“I would be more concerned about the (in)accuracy of the article,” Winston said, than about the cover illustration, adding that the article itself did a poor job of explaining Mormon theology. Many religions have worldviews that incorporate both economic and spiritual values, a fact the Businessweek article missed, she said.

Winston said the cover reminded her of the controversy generated by a 2008 New Yorker cover featuring Michelle and Barack Obama dressed as Islamic terrorists. In each case, she said, a news outlet was attempting to communicate a complex message in pictures, a difficult task that isn’t always pulled off with sensitivity.

In the lengthy cover story by Caroline Winter, titled "How the Mormons Make Money," Winter wrote about what she called "a vast church-owned corporate empire that the Mormon leadership says will help spread its message, increase economic self-reliance and build the Kingdom of God on earth."

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