PBS series 'a welcome change,' church says

But most viewers find fault with documentary

Published: Sunday, Oct. 4 2015 7:14 a.m. MDT

The LDS Church characterized the two-part PBS documentary "The Mormons" favorably, noting correctly that some church members may have a mixed reaction to its treatment of sensitive church issues.
"At a time when significant media and public attention is being turned to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and when news media is so often accused of superficiality in its coverage of religion, this serious treatment of a serious subject is a welcome change," the church wrote in a statement posted at lds.org Wednesday.
"But even four hours and numerous interviews can't cover everything," the statement also reads. "No doubt, some Church members will feel essentials were left out."
The church invited viewer feedback at its Web site about "The Mormons" at lds.org, church spokesman Mark Tuttle said.
The Deseret Morning News also invited readers who watched the four-hour PBS series to offer their feedback. So far, more than 150 have taken time to e-mail the paper with their reaction.
In a nutshell, a majority of the respondents identified themselves as LDS Church members, and most of them had negative reviews. The most common complaints followed the church's observation: too much of the presentation dwelt on polygamy and the Mountain Meadows massacre, too little on discussion about the church's doctrine and the early persecution the church experienced before moving west.
Bruce Jacobs of Layton wrote: "I believe it's healthy for us to come to terms with difficult issues. I didn't like everything about 'The Mormons,' but it serves a good purpose by fostering dialogue between ourselves and with those of other faiths."
Another writer, Ray Anderson, put it this way: "As I watched the documentary, I found myself thinking 'So that's what my friends and family members of other faiths think I believe! No wonder they find it peculiar!"'
A positive feedback from within church ranks came from a Californian who identified herself as Maryann: "I really enjoyed both segments. I think it took a very well-balanced look at the church. I thought the praise for the church was very well done and highlighted what I love about being a member."
More typical were responses like this: "On the whole, the attempt by the producers of this documentary to be fair and balanced was not accomplished. Choosing a homosexual male who had forsaken family and faith, and an axe-grinding, male-bashing former member as the voice of dissent by 'so called intellectuals' for commentary on core doctrine and beliefs of the LDS Church was very much like having Lenin comment on American democracy. You know where he is going and which way he is going to take you," Jack Peck wrote.
Cody Roskelley, a Texan, compared the documentary to a segment "60 Minutes" did in 1996 when Mike Wallace conducted an extensive interview with church President Gordon B. Hinckley. "The Mike Wallace interview was 1,000 times better than the documentary."
Ken Kuykendall, who hosts LDS Church-friendly mormoncentury.org, was interviewed for the documentary and thought it "turned out fairly well, which surprised me." His concern developed from the impression filmmaker Helen Whitney left him with after their telephone interview.
Kuykendall said he found Whitney "extremely gracious throughout the interview" but her opening question: "When it comes to the Mormon Church, what are your doubts?" to be the most "comically over-the-top leading question that I have ever heard."
"I am a lawyer, and in law you are allowed to ask leading questions only to someone who is an adversary, someone considered a 'hostile witness.' So her question immediately made me very wary, though I doubt that was her intent."
When she replied "Hmm, you sound just like President Hinckley," his impression of her tone was that it had a hint of disappointment. "She really missed the mark. I was smiling all day that someone would say that about me. It's probably the nicest compliment I've ever received."
Kuykendall said he begged off on Whitney's invitation for a follow-up interview.
The PBS documentary was aired simultaneously by KUED at the University of Utah and KBYU at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.
Ratings at both stations were through the roof compared to typical week-night programming on a PBS affiliate.
"The ratings for 'The Mormons' was the highest we have ever received," said Larry Smith, KUED general manager. "Our rating on Monday night was larger than the Jazz playoff game, which always gets large audiences."
Jim Bell, director of broadcasting for BYU, called the ratings "quite impressive." Bell said the station received surprisingly few calls, only one of them a complaint. Neither station has immediate plans to rebroadcast the program. Meantime, Comcast has the program available in its "on demand" service, and PBS will take orders at its Web site for a DVD of the documentary.
Media reviews of the documentary have been generally positive. The New York Times' biggest complaint was that the second installment didn't deliver all of the information it promised.
Before the documentary aired, the LDS Church issued a disclaimer, making it known it did not produce the documentary. The Wall Street Journal said that disclaimer gave the notion the church expected the documentary to be negative. "It turns out that the disclaimer was meant to assure members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that while LDS leaders cooperated with filmmaker Helen Whitney, this doesn't mean that they endorsed the producer's take on every aspect of their religion."
KBYU and KUED will air a locally produced collection of interviews reacting to the documentary Friday at 8 p.m. on the "Utah Now" program. The interviews will include an interview with Elder Marlin Jensen, a member of the Quorums of Seventy and church historian.

E-mail: sfidel@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company