Sen. Mike Lee has become something of a media critic in recent weeks.
He has gone so far as to call for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to sell the news website, creating the hashtag #sellKSL.
It appears the sustained campaign began Aug. 15, when the Utah Republican ripped into KSL.com for a tweet about an AP story. The tweet read “President Donald Trump’s younger brother, Robert Trump, a businessman known for an even keel that seemed almost incompatible with the family name, died after being hospitalized in New York, the president said in a statement.”
That tweet comes almost verbatim from the AP story. That story also supported that statement with quotes from the president, including this paragraph: “Donald Trump once described his younger brother as ‘much quieter and easygoing than I am.’”
Lee called the KSL tweet “appalling” and said KSL was “spiking some sort of political football.” He finished the Facebook post calling for the church to sell KSL.
“Sen. Lee did question the civility of KSL.com’s tweet about the death of President Trump’s brother, and he did call for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to sell KSL.com if they continued to allow that kind of behavior,” said Lee’s spokesperson Conn Carroll. He noted that KSL.com has since deleted the tweet and apologized for it.
That’s not the extent of Lee’s beef. He has since taken to Facebook and posted five more criticisms of KSL.
On Aug. 19, Lee focused on an article that said Trump “praised the supporters of QAnon” and he “suggested he appreciates their support of his candidacy.”
“Is that what he said? I don’t think it was. But KSL said it was, so ... it must be true, right?” Lee said mockingly on Facebook.
Trump, asked about believers of the QAnon conspiracy, had said “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much.” He added, “I’ve heard these are people that love our country.”
In one particularly volcanic criticism, Lee accused KSL, and by association the LDS Church, of political bias against the Republican Party.
“I really would like to know: does KSL prefer the Democratic Party? Does it oppose the reelection of President Trump? If so, does that preference reflect the views of its owner, which has long maintained a position of neutrality with regard to partisan political elections? Many — I suspect including some within KSL — would have us believe that all three of those questions can be answered in the affirmative, perhaps as a signal to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Maybe the same individuals would prefer to leave those conclusions unsaid and implied, making KSL’s anti-Republican, anti-conservative, and anti-Trump effort easier and less messy. That’s precisely what makes it so dangerous,” he said.
Lee’s sustained ire isn’t for every KSL property. He distinguishes between them.
KSL-TV, KSL-Radio and KSL.com are under one umbrella, but behind the scenes, they’re not the same organization. The TV and radio stations are owned and operated by Bonneville Broadcasting. But, KSL.com is part of Deseret Digital Media. So, while KSL.com publishes content produced by the broadcast entities, it enjoys a measure of freedom. The Deseret News is another separate entity in the church’s media empire, where Lee’s former chief of staff, Boyd Matheson, is the opinion editor.
Since they are not the same organization, Lee believes there’s a disconnect.
“The ongoing issue here is that KSL.com continues to publish highly biased headlines and articles from The Associated Press that would never meet the objective editorial standards of KSL radio or television. Sen. Lee hopes the church addresses the ongoing bias issues he has been documenting at KSL.com,” Carroll, the senator’s spokesman wrote.
Deseret Digital Media pushed back hard against Lee’s criticism.
“We are disappointed in the comments from Sen. Lee. We have a strict policy of political neutrality and work very hard to keep political bias out of our newsroom,” Greg Peterson, president of Deseret Digital Media, said in an email. “We strive to serve the various audiences we reach. We also strive to provide accurate facts and information to our readers so they can form their own opinions."
As for the use of AP stories, Peterson says it was a function borne of necessity.
“As a local media outlet, we do not have the luxury of a cadre of reporters in Washington," he said, “and so we are dependent to some degree on wire services for national and international coverage.”
Lee’s office confirms he’s spoken directly to Deseret Digital Media representatives about his concerns but would not characterize the nature of those discussions.
On Sept. 1, Lee further explained his thoughts in a Facebook comment saying: “The church has every right to express itself. And so does KSL. But when KSL speaks, it does so in a way that makes it difficult to differentiate from the church. That is problematic, given that KSL — sometimes of its own accord, and often by adopting content prepared by the increasingly leftist Associated Press — appears routinely to be working to undermine conservatives, Republicans, and President Trump. If this were the position of the church, fine. But the church has to its credit declared itself neutral in matters of partisan politics.”
Salt Lake Tribune readers may well be curious what the senator thinks of this publication, which, like many, uses wire stories from The Associated Press.
On Aug. 24, Lee wrote on Facebook: “The fact that KSL is less left-leaning than The Salt Lake Tribune — which at least has the decency to acknowledge what it is — doesn’t make it not so.”
For the record, The Tribune makes no attempt to funnel its journalism through a partisan prism, though readers may have their own opinions on the question.