PROVO, Utah — When William E. Homer was called as the Northern California public communications director in September 1982, his stake president said his primary assignment was to coordinate bringing BYU football games into the stake center via satellite.
No problem, president.
Then in 1983, promoters of an anti-Mormon movie called "The God Makers" began advertising the film and generating large articles with false information about the LDS Church in the San Jose Mercury News.
"There was no handbook or job description for the local public communications director," Homer said, "but (I) felt (I) could 'magnify my calling' beyond the coordination of BYU football broadcasts."
Over the next eight years he served as public communications director, Homer documented his efforts to address misconceptions, provide accurate information and gradually improve attitudes toward the church by working with the San Jose Mercury News. He titled his research, "Relations Between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the San Jose Mercury News, 1982-1990: Turning Lemons into Lemonade." Homer shared his research with more than 50 people gathered at last week's BYU Mormon Media Studies Symposium.
Prior to Homer's calling, there had been little or no interaction between the church and the San Jose Mercury News. Latter-day Saints were perceived as small in number in the Bay area. It was difficult for news media to comprehend and contact local church leadership, and the church had no plan for reaching out to the newspaper.
"The calling came with no specific assignment or plan," he said.
When a series of ads and articles promoting "The God Makers" started appearing in the San Jose Mecury News, Homer wrote the newspaper's publisher, Tony Ridder, who scheduled a meeting with Homer. The meeting was the beginning of establishing a relationship between the church and the newspaper. "The God Makers," an anti-Mormon film, was produced by Jeremiah Films in 1982 and takes a highly critical view of the LDS Church, its practices and teachings. The film was marketed as an exposé of the church.
"'The God Makers' had a horrible impact. But once we showed them the size of the LDS audience, they started to work with us," Homer said.
Homer said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has approximately 250,000 members in Northern California (the second largest religious group in the state of California) and the circulation of the San Jose Mercury News is approximately 652,000.
When the San Jose South Stake Relief Society president died in a car accident, Homer worked with the religion/obituary editor to do a story about the Relief Society president's life. The resulting article was favorable. It also became the first of many feature obituaries offering LDS insight to be submitted and published.
"These articles tended to be universally positive," Homer said.
Homer requested to stay in the calling for an extended period of time so he could develop a trusted relationship with the major media outlet. He wrote to editors and offered help on stories by providing contacts and information about the church.
In 1985, Homer obtained a subscription to the LDS Church News section of the Deseret News for the religion editor of the Mercury News. He suggested the church do this for other major news outlets.
Later that year when LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball died, the newspaper ran several prominent articles about his death and successor, President Ezra Taft Benson. Unfortunately, the paper also ran inaccurate stories about the process surrounding the selection of a new church president. Homer continued to battle.
In successive years, Homer said accuracy and quality of articles regarding Mormons improved considerably, despite little things that happened. In the end, Homer felt his hard work was worth it.
"The San Jose Mercury News had largely ignored the church and people until we became a squeaky wheel," Homer said. "Like a fruit garden, there was no harvest until seeds had been planted and nurtured and weeds had been dealt with. Then there was a bountiful season with the San Jose Mercury News."