In the weeks following the 2016 presidential election, The New York Times joined many national media outlets in a public soul searching over their failure to recognize that millions of Americans felt ignored, misrepresented and dismissed by the nation’s intellectual and political elite. While this effort seemed sincere, its effects have not endured.
On Jan. 3 The Times published an article reporting on the death of Thomas S. Monson, president and leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the article was poorly executed, and by narrowly focusing on particular aspects of Monson’s tenure, The Times exposed itself to accusations of bias. As expected, the paper addressed policies relating to LGBT members and questions about the role of women in the church, impactful issues of interest to Times readers.
However, the tilt lay in the failure to mention many other initiatives of note: the church’s extensive refugee assistance, Islamic outreach, expansion of education, efforts to eradicate homelessness, advocacy for compassionate immigration policies, expansion of the church’s mission to include care for the poor and Monson’s signature plea to honor the value of the individual. Certainly these expressions of faith would also have been of interest to readers, and when reported alongside the controversies, serve to disrupt preconceptions and provide a more nuanced view into the minds and hearts of believing Mormons.
Why would it have been in The Times’ own best interest to invest the resources necessary to produce solid reporting on President Monson? National media outlets undermine their broad credibility when they publish simplistic and tone deaf stories about regional or religious communities. As written, the article certainly grabbed views and offended many Mormons, but this in itself is not proof of the paper fulfilling its public purpose. While great journalism never simply affirms readers’ beliefs; it should always inform and present fair analysis. When The Times failed at the latter, it offended to no purpose. It is always appropriate to raise a mirror revealing truth (warts and all), but damaging when the mirror projects a caricature by exaggerating some features while ignoring others. Caricatures can be revealing, but they are rarely completely “true,” and to those being consistently caricatured they begin to read as willful lies.
Events of the last year have been extremely disorienting for many of us, and papers of The New York Times’ calibre can play a crucial role as Americans seek their footing in an unstable political landscape. This state of flux also presents a rare opportunity; a window in which we can break down calcified political alignments and create new and vibrant civic partnerships free of past prejudices. Many Mormons are courageously walking into this uncharted territory. In the last two years prominent Mormon politicians, church leaders and average voters repeatedly broke from expected patterns and alliances. Yet Monson’s obituary was a case study in the breach that results when national media uses shortcuts and stereotypes in regional reporting. An opportunity to build was lost, and the article about Monson played an unfortunate role in exacerbating, rather than bridging a cultural divide.
During the last year, Mormon Women for Ethical Government has joined many other grass-roots organizations trying to combat the corruption growing at the heart of our democracy. Central to our non-partisan effort has been an attempt to educate about legitimate news sources, and we encourage our membership to base political action on credible journalism. While recognizing the limitations of its reach, we have nonetheless consistently championed the New York Times as an example of such journalism, encouraging our members to pay for and support reputable media. We realize that the electorate cannot walk new paths without reliable and honest sources of information to inform their steps.
On Jan. 3, The Times visibly failed to provide that information, doing so in a way that came to the attention of most literate Mormons, and making it difficult to maintain trust. When the paper incompletely reports on issues we have lived experience with, how can we trust what it says about complex and far away events we cannot hope to verify?
We are deeply appreciative of the excellent work that The New York Times and other reputable papers do in defense of the Republic and its values. We support their endeavors to hold the nation’s leaders to the highest standards of excellence. We invite the Times to hold itself to the same high standards. If the institution truly wants to be the paper of record for the entirety of the nation, then it must dedicate resources accordingly and treat regional populations with respect and accurate reporting. Doing so in quieter moments will ensure its credibility when far more important issues are at stake.
Jennifer Walker Thomas, Boston, Mass., is the media literacy lead and one of the original members of Mormon Women for Ethical Government