I give my kudos to Sally Quinn and the On Faith section of the Washington Post.
The Post’s decision to invite the reflections of various religious and other leaders about the lessons of faith from the 9-11 terrorist attacks led to an article by President Thomas S. Monson, his own unfiltered words, in the nation’s press, as most of this audience knows by now.
I could say much in admiration for President Monson’s prophetic message and tone in the Post, but his words speak for themselves with the authority he has to say them. I admire and sustain his words and approach.
As a media observer, I think it is a powerful moment for news, one of which I would like to see more. I wish there were more of these kinds of articles. I think the press and the country would be better off if there were.
These kinds of essays have been rare and unusual in U.S. history, wherein LDS leaders have been allowed a forum to discuss topics in depth without much filter.
If I am not mistaken, it has been since 1997 when the nation’s major press asked for a full essay or editorial from a president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Admittedly, I didn’t look too deeply for other examples.)
That year, President Gordon B. Hinckley wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal about the 150th anniversary of the Saints arriving in the Salt Lake Valley.
There were also the important questions and answers President Hinckley did with national news outlets like Larry King in the years since then. I appreciate those kinds of journalism well.
I want more. I want more essays from religious leaders of all kinds describing how to face the world and what to make of news events.
I want less filtering by mainstream religion reporters who sometimes think the main news story involving religion is conflict or scandal.
I think if we use more of this kind of unfiltered writing in the mainstream news, religion will be portrayed more accurately and dialogue will increase between and among religions. Important messages will get out.
There is historical precedent for this kind of reporting too, and the best of it ought to return.
I don’t think it is an accident that the LDS Church’s restoration and founding occurred at nearly the same time as modern media began. Mass media is part of getting the church noticed, as it is so well noticed on the Internet today.
Around 1830, printing technologies and paper production technologies changed markedly such that the cost of publishing newspapers began to decline.
Rather than being merely an intellectual habit of those with wealth, news consumption became something everyone could afford.
News audiences became mass audiences and the mass media through the so-called Penny Press were born.
Few historians doubt that two of the leading builders of the Penny Press era were the New York Tribune’s Horace Greeley and the New York Herald’s James Gordon Bennett.
Both men had their flaws, to be sure.
When I think of Greeley, I think of his lengthy support for Karl Marx. Greeley printed scores of Marx’s writing, providing support for the revolutionary. I wonder how the world would have been different without Greeley’s support for Marx. Bennett’s embrace of sensational crime reporting bothers me too, but both Bennett and Greeley provided a good model about how to deal with faith —printing things relatively unfiltered to an audience.
Greeley visited Salt Lake City in 1859 and his “substantially” verbatim interview with President Brigham Young allowed the Saints to speak for themselves during that controversial time.
Bennett, for his part, printed the translation and facsimile of what became the Book of Abraham nearly 20 years earlier. Other newspapers printed it as well.
Imagine scriptural discussions and quotations in the nation’s press today.
It seems almost laughable to think journalists might write such things today, yet there is precedent for it.
As President Monson’s essay shows, powerful dialogue and ideas can be promoted when journalists move away from filtering religious messages as much as they do and, instead, moving to allowing the faithful to tell their own stories and to make their own points.
On Dec. 18, 1841, Joseph Smith went to the Nauvoo City Council and helped pass a resolution complimenting James Gordon Bennett for his coverage of the church— before Bennett printed the Book of Abraham excerpts — and invited Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo to subscribe to his paper.
While I don’t go so far as calling for new subscriptions to the Post, I do commend and thank this great news organization for its fair-minded recent approach to news about religion in the On Faith section. I welcome more writing from religious leaders of all kinds and more of people to tell their own religious stories.
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.