Tens of thousands of Mormons are signing an online petition to show their outrage over the tone of The New York Times’ recent obituary for LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson.
It’s not necessarily that the story was inaccurate. Petition launcher Nathan Cunningham, a Mormon who lives in Sparks, Nev., just saw it as biased politically and religiously.
“Instead of highlighting the positive aspects of his life, or a neutral statement about the facts of his life,” the petition declared, “they decided to attack and disparage his character and used his obituary as a political statement against him and the [LDS Church] as a whole and tweeted a click-bait headline to attack even further.”
As of Tuesday evening, the petition topped 173,000 signatures, easily outpacing the original goal of 75,000. The new target: 200,000.
“Fidel Castro and others have had more neutral obituaries, which shows this as either a direct attack or a complete misunderstanding of religions or religious people,” the petition noted. “Would they write similar scathing remarks about the pope?”
Cunningham wrote that he understood The Times has the constitutional right to report what it will, but “an obituary should not be used as a political platform.”
“We are asking that The [Times] formally apologize for this bias in reporting and present an honest, neutral and balanced obituary.”
Times editors did not directly reply Monday to inquiries from The Salt Lake Tribune, but late in the afternoon published a response to criticism through its online “Reader Center,” including a direct response from the newspaper’s obituary editor William McDonald.
It read, in part, that he considered the obituary “a faithful accounting of the more prominent issues that Mr. Monson encountered and dealt with publicly during his tenure,” particularly the role of women in the church and the faith’s policy toward homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
Those issues had been “widely publicized and discussed, and it’s our obligation as journalists, whether in an obituary or elsewhere, to fully air these issues from both sides. I think we did that, accurately portraying Mr. Monson’s positions as leader of the church, and those of the faithful and others who questioned church policies.”
But McDonald said the story may have fallen short. “I also acknowledge that many of those who found the obituary wanting feel we did not provide a more rounded view of Mr. Monson — perhaps his more human side. I’ll concede that what we portrayed was the public man, not the private one, or the one known to his most ardent admirers.”
That, apparently, was as close to an apology or rewrite as The Times is willing to go. And that did not surprise Rick Edmonds — a media business analyst with the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute, an industry ethics watchdog as well as a journalism training school. He said it was always “quite unlikely” the newspaper would bow to petitioners’ pressure.
“The Times has not, historically, been receptive at all to the notion that their reporting overall got an important point wrong,” Edmonds said. “They will run a correction if there’s a factual challenge and if they agree they were wrong.”
While saying The Times’ focus in the obituary on LGBT and women’s issues in relation to the Utah-based LDS Church was understandable, given the paper’s “national perspective,” Edmonds acknowledged the article could be perceived as harsh in its treatment of a “revered” religious figure, who died Jan. 2 at age 90.
“My reaction [to the obituary] was that I can sort of see why people, especially church members, would be somewhat offended by it,” Edmonds said. “It does go very quickly into controversies [and imply] that the church is out of tune” with evolving gay and women’s rights issues.
“So, yes, I see the [petition’s] point,” Edmonds added. “I don’t think [the obituary] was entirely one-sided, though. … [Monson] does get credit for a number of things that occurred during his tenure.”
Bobby Ross Jr., writing on a GetReligion blog, said The Times’ story was “told from an obviously progressive perspective … and seemed more slanted in how it characterized Monson and the controversies he faced.”
Cunningham told The Tribune on Monday that “while The New York Times may or may not listen, our goals are clear and simple. Our request is that [they] reconsider the tone and emphasis of the obituary.”
He added: “The facts of the obituary may or may not be [accurate], and we have no interest in trying to dispute on those grounds. However, an obituary is hardly the place to criticize a church and its policies.”
Cunningham denied that the petition’s goal was to “stir people to anger or provide a place to vent because that is not what Thomas Monson would do. Rather, we want to honor a person that has inspired many people around the world to do good.”
Other obituaries, including The Tribune’s, touched on those hot-button topics during Monson’s 10-year presidential tenure, though most of them did so deeper in their stories. They also included more about the LDS leader’s pastoral ministry.
The Times’ article, by Robert D. McFadden, begins by saying that while Monson enlarged the ranks of female missionaries, he also refused to allow women to be ordained as priests and held firm against gay marriage.
“Facing vociferous demands to recognize same-sex marriage, and weathering demonstrations at church headquarters by Mormon women pleading for the right to be ordained as priests, Mr. Monson did not bend,” the third paragraph stated. “Teachings holding homosexuality to be immoral, bans on sexual intercourse outside male-female marriages, and an all-male priesthood would remain unaltered.”
The following paragraph pointed out that Monson opened church records to scholars, but also reported that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was “confronted with troubling inconsistencies in Mormon history and scripture” and found itself at odds with the Boy Scouts of America when the latter group permitted gay youths to join its ranks and gay adults to become leaders.
Now, rank-and-file Mormons are finding themselves at odds with The Times.
“I’m signing [the petition] because this is an attack rather than an obituary,” wrote Houston resident Kyle Wilkinson. “Obituaries are meant to show the best sides of people, not tear down people for what others disagreed with them about.”
West Jordan resident Ashleigh Lewis said the article was used “to attack the church for not conforming to the world views. NYT please do not push your political views or position to dishonor a man who did so much for good.”