David Broder, the great political reporter who died last week, gave us insight into how politics should be covered when it intersects with religion.
I thought of Broder's subtle contribution to the relationship between religion and media as I sadly pondered his remarkable life and contributions to political reporting.
As some might know, I have spent a long time thinking about and examining the coverage of Mitt Romney's first campaign for the presidency and how journalists covered the Mormonism therein.
Non-Mormons learned a lot about what Mormons believed if they read closely. True, some of the news coverage seemed a distortion, and much of it shallow, but non-Mormons could learn that Mormons believe in the Book of Mormon, that they crossed the plains in the 1840s amid great persecution, that they believe in modern prophets and that Joseph Smith was one of those prophets in whom we believe. Yes, readers often learned that Mormons once believed in polygamy and have "unusual" beliefs, but careful readers could gain a rough, if imperfect outline of the essentials of Mormon belief and culture through the coverage of the Romney campaign, if they chose to do so.
What the coverage of Romney lacked was what Broder provided —if briefly — during the presidential campaign of Mitt's father, George. What it lacked was solid linkages between Romney's Mormon belief and how those beliefs might or would influence policy.
In a 1967 campaign book, and in a campaign biography in the Washington Post, Broder and his colleague Stephen Hess explained in detail the life and career of George Romney, and then spent a few paragraphs trying to respectfully ascertain how it was that George Romney's religion might shape his politics and his policies.
They didn't spend much time on the obscurities of Mormon belief but tried to examine how culture and belief might shape public policy instead. For example, they talked of how Mormon wards that cooperate and divide might inform the economic policies in a George Romney administration.
The analysis was creative and seemed without malice. To be sure, I didn't fully agree with what they wrote, but the approach demonstrated respect and intelligence and illustrated a flaw in Mitt Romney's 2008 coverage and, indeed, much of the coverage of political campaigns that involve religion today. Reporters failed mostly to link religious belief with serious, real world concerns and with how religion might inform political leanings.
Where I saw discussion of my Mormon ideology in the coverage of the Romney campaign, I did see occasional efforts by reporters to link politics and belief, including links to things like Smith's apocryphal "White Horse Prophecy" and to Mormon views on abortion and homosexuality. But these issues lacked depth and reinforced existing issues in the national debate or enhanced old stereotypes. There was little new.
What seemed missing were the kind of intelligent, thoughtful and respectful analysis that Broder tried to provide.
Let me give you an example. Like most Mormons, I sometimes read with great interest the stories of secret combinations in the Book of Mormon and realize these dark groups of Gadianton Robbers and those like them led to the end of civilizations. We Mormons, therefore, seem uniquely attuned to the dangers of these groups. It seems an appropriate place for journalistic analysis and commentary to discuss whether Mormonism provides insight into terrorism that might be unique and to intelligently, respectfully speculate how those stories lead to political beliefs.
I believe no one in the mainstream press has ever once talked of the Mormon story of Gadianton Robbers, let alone analyzed them in relationship to our modern concerns about the dark combinations behind terrorism.
And what of the Mormon experience of persecution? It strikes me that our Mormon experience provides us with distrust of Washington because of how Washington often gave Mormons persecution and little attention in the early years of the church. I would think a Mormon candidate for president might have an instinctual distrust of a large federal government. Not saying for sure, but it is possible. Reporters could use these facts and use interviews with Mormons to respectfully discuss these issues.
And Mormonism has an unusual sense of American exceptionalism that comes straight from the Book of Mormon. Ether has strong words: "For behold, this is a land which is choice above all other lands; wherefore he that doth possess it shall serve God or shall be swept off." This is quite powerful stuff that we believe. My Mormon belief provides a powerful patriotism, tinged always with worry.
I tend to be politically conservative, but Mormonism can shape whatever traditionally liberal impulses I might have. My Mormon faith personifies the Earth as sad for the wickedness upon it in the Book of Moses. This personification provides great insight and incentive to enhance my environmental consciousness. Our fasting program and King Benjamin's speech makes me think that helping the needy must remain a personal, and national, imperative.
My criticism of reporters isn't just of how they cover Mormons, but of how they cover other religions, too.
For example, I found no intelligent analysis of the Black Liberation Theology in mainstream media outlets so powerfully presented and embraced in President Barack Obama's former church. I wanted neither glib acceptance nor rejection of these ideas. I wanted respectful depth that explored an issue. I suspect the preaching of liberation theology had a great influence on Obama and, even if our president is unwilling to talk about them, a good political reporter can find sources and experts to present these ideological ideas with respect and depth in ways that could inform my voting.
Broder so often led the way. Let us hope in the campaign about to begin that reporters respectfully look at Mormonism and other religions as something that can powerfully, usefully enhance the views of major national candidates, just as Broder taught by example a few decades ago.
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.
As the Mormon Media Observer, Lane is interested in hearing your ideas for stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.