Many stunned Tim Ballard supporters reasoned that a harsh rebuke of the Latter-day Saint anti-sex-trafficking activist could not have come from his church leaders.
It must be a mistake, the words of a “rogue” church employee, fake news or, worse, a dark conspiracy to sink Ballard’s potential campaign to replace retiring Republican Sen. Mitt Romney.
But it wasn’t.
The church’s quote in VICE remained without correction or change, while other news outlets — including The Salt Lake Tribune and the church-owned Deseret News — asked for and received the same statement.
Like all other official statements given to journalists on a variety of topics, it may have been drafted by staff members but it was approved by general authorities assigned to the faith’s communication department. And it reflects the views of top Latter-day Saint leaders.
The statement was “unusually harsh,” says Joel Campbell, a former reporter and editor who teaches in Brigham Young University’s school of communications, but readers have to “presume it was approved at every level.”
As often occurs, it was given to one outlet in response to a direct query and not put on the church’s newsroom website, he says, but that “does not mean it wasn’t real.”
If a spokesperson gave an unapproved statement to a media outlet, Campbell says, that person “would be fired.”
Kelly McBride, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism training center in Florida, concurs.
The Utah-based church “has a pretty vocal public relations arm,” McBride says. “If [those professionals] wanted to disavow the VICE story, they clearly would have done so sometime this week.”
When the church “wants to clarify something,” she says, “that is how it’s done.”
Still unsatisfied, some of Ballard’s defenders called church headquarters in Salt Lake City and asked operators, who are not authorized to give out policy statements, if there were an “official statement” about the activist’s efforts.
In taped responses released by The SPEAR Fund, where Ballard is a senior adviser, some operators replied that they didn’t know of any official church statement while others said there was no such release.
But there was.
It’s the VICE statement, which says that Tim Ballard had “betrayed” his friendship with senior church apostle M. Russell Ballard “through the unauthorized use of President Ballard’s name for Tim Ballard’s personal advantage and [for] activity regarded as morally unacceptable.”
The spokesperson’s quote went further to say that “President Ballard never authorized his name, or the name of the church, to be used for Tim’s personal or financial interests.”
Calling operators could create doubt about the authenticity of the church statement, says McBride, who works to inform the public about media literacy. “The natural default is to stick to what you already believe rather than to accept the facts that are not what you think they are.”
This scenario of belief and disbelief plays out “over and over,” she says, “in the culture wars.”
Utahns saw a similar rejection of reality over the church’s stance on immigration reform.
After the church endorsed but did not sign the 2010 Utah Compact — which called for humane treatment of immigrants and advocated keeping families together — it sent then-Presiding Bishop H. David Burton to a signing ceremony for a slate of immigration reforms adopted by the Legislature.
Arturo Morales-LLan, head of Legal Immigrants for Immigration Law Enforcement, said at the time that he wouldn’t believe that the church supported those reforms until he could see an official statement from the faith’s governing First Presidency.
“David Burton has a right to be present or to be involved in any affairs concerning the faith,” Morales-LLan said, “but he does not speak for the First Presidency.”
The church later posted its support for immigration reform on its website, but until then many believed it was the work of public affairs officials only.
How, then, do these church spokespersons decide on policies and pronouncements?
A Latter-day Saint communication system
The top authority in the church is the First Presidency, which includes the faith’s prophet-president. That threesome currently consists of President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring.
The second tier is the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, presently headed by acting President M. Russell Ballard.
Together, these 15 men are seen by the members as “prophets, seers and revelators.”
Thus, the most urgent and significant statements carry the First Presidency’s signatures (and sometimes the imprimatur of the rest of the apostles as well). The directives are sometimes read over the pulpit to the faithful in the 17 million-member global church. Such messages often are posted to the church’s website.
The top leaders also approve responses to media queries that they deem of sufficient importance, while the executive committee — including two apostles, four general authority Seventies, as well top women’s leaders and some staffers — vet answers that may not be so crucial.
There are two avenues for how media statements are made, says Stuart Reid, who worked for the faith’s public affairs in the 1990s.
First, staffers or the executive committee might identify an issue they believe should be addressed. They then draft a possible response and send it up the hierarchy for approval, Reid says. It can be edited at any level.
They also might get a question or request from a journalist or media outlet — as in the Ballard case with VICE News — which would prompt a similar process. Though approved, the answers may be only for that journalist.
For example, The Tribune asked the church for a statement to include in a story about #DezNat, self-appointed online defenders of the faith.
The response — DezNat is “not affiliated with or endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” — represented the faith’s view, but it was never posted on its website.
Second, a leader who oversees a particular department of the church — such as Latter-day Saints using Jewish death records to do vicarious work for them — could ask staffers to put together a policy statement that would be approved and could then be posted on the newsroom website.
For his part, Reid believes the recent statement about Tim Ballard’s individual morality was “highly unusual.”
But whether coming from the faith’s president in General Conference to the world or from a public affairs spokesperson in a release emailed to a journalist, such statements — though they may differ in emphasis, visibility, even importance — have this much in common: They are the official word of the church.
To Latter-day Saint journalist McKay Coppins, who wrote on X (formerly Twitter), “it’s been wild to see [Ballard’s] LDS fans simply refuse to accept that the church issued that statement denouncing him — even when the church’s own newspaper confirmed its authenticity. Extreme cognitive dissonance.”
Coppins, author of a forthcoming book about Romney, added:
“This is to say nothing of the vitriol many of them have directed at an apostle in their own church because he distanced himself from Tim Ballard.”
It’s what happens, The Atlantic writer says, “when you make your politics your religion.”