Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Thoughts on The New York Times Obituary for Pres. Monson

The New York Times has known for at least a decade that one day they would be publishing an obituary of Thomas S. Monson. My understanding is that the standard journalistic practice is to draft obituaries of significant public figures in advance, updating them periodically, so that they only need finishing touches rather than a full research process when they are needed.

Even with the lead time, the Times clearly slacked off a bit on this one. Their main source seems to have been a glance through their own archives during the past ten years, which is understandable if underwhelming. But at at least one point, I'm pretty sure they also straight-up Googled to find a quote to insert. I say this because they threw in a statement about polygamy from the website oncedelivered.net--and yes, they did attribute the quote to the website itself and not its author, Rob Phillips, whose job code is "team leader of communications and apologetics" for Southern Baptists in the state of Missouri. I mean, is it really so hard to get someone to criticize polygamy that a national newspaper needs that source? 

Most commentators haven't focused on the carelessness of the obituary, but on its tone--which is either dominated by tough journalistic rigor or open hostility, depending on your perspective. Several people have contrasted the piece to the obituaries of figures like Hugh Hefner, which seemed more generous--not to mention less soulless and perfunctory. 

In response to complaints, the Times ran a piece in their Reader Center covering messages they'd received and offering their obituaries editor a chance to reflect on his team's work. The editor largely doubles down on the piece. I personally found his discussion a little condescending. But then again, it is entirely possible that I am an oversensitive religious zealot from the distant provinces of America with no appreciation for Real Journalism. 

The dust, I suspect, is clearing now. Very soon, if not already, people will find something else to talk about and whatever impressions they had of this incident will be logged in their memories in service of whatever large narratives they build up over time about the Church or the press or the country. Those stories are too big and strong for me to change, but I would like to reflect briefly on two of my own reactions as this moment passes: 

1) As an American, I am deeply disappointed by the missed opportunity this obituary represents. 
2) As a Latter-day Saint, I found my faith oddly affirmed by the piece. 

My Reaction As an American

I have been worried for a long time about the partisan fracturing of America. Years ago, I was in an experimental play where I responded to God's absence by going to fetch a golden elephant and a golden donkey, and the image has lingered with me ever since. I worry that our political and cultural positions have become idolatrous--and that organizing so much of the diverse complexity of reality through the lens of partisan fervor makes it hard to talk to, and to trust, each other at a moment when we desperately need talk and trust to face difficult problems. 

Like many Americans, liberal and conservative, I've been particularly concerned about the way political conversations have looked during the Trump campaign and presidency. I worry about the extent to which the president plays fast and loose with facts, the impulsive and emotive way he responds to private citizens and foreign leaders alike, the playground bully tone he employs on a daily basis. In a historical moment like this, I long for increased trust in public institutions where Americans can come together across old political lines to make sense of what has happened. As sobriety and dignity have left the Oval Office, I want to find them elsewhere. 

As the president attacks the media, I want them to do their best to act in a way I can accept as measured, careful, dignified, and open to a broad rather than a niche public. It's not really fair of me, of course, to expect that from media institutions with bills to pay and polarized audiences to serve. But I can wish for it. 

And this moment would have been such an easy opportunity. The Times needed to cover the controversies and the causes celebre of their left-leaning, intellectual-establishment base. But it shouldn't have been that hard for them, with a decade to prepare, to use the moment of a longtime leader's death to reach out. If capturing Thomas S. Monson's personal ethos seemed too small for them, there are plenty of other angles they could have used to explore his legacy. After all, Thomas S. Monson was called as an apostle in 1963. They could have mentioned his interaction with Mormons behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. They could have commented on his position as a religious leader during nearly six decades of significant cultural and religious change in the United States. 

I don't think they even would have needed to say anything nice about him, quite frankly. Dignifying him as someone who interacted with the grand scope of a long history would have been enough to stake a claim to a public sphere, where major religious leaders are a meaningful part of the history of the country. 

Instead, they left Monson's life squeezed somewhere between Kate Kelly and oncedelivered.net in his own obituary. And in doing so, they reinforced existing narratives--narratives the current President has worked hard to exploit--about the liberal bias of traditional media outlets and about their disrespect for broad demographic segments of the American populace. Mormons, who run civic-minded, have been open to caution about Trump even as they're remained by and large faithful to the Republican Party. Mormons are a community, arguably, moved by the moment to seek civic spaces for shared conversation that transcends partisanship. 

But the Trump team allowed someone competent on their staff to post a well-worded statement of sympathy and tribute--one with none of the account's signature all-caps phrases or self-aggrandizement--at the very moment the Times slapped together a case for their own insularity and called it an obituary. They gave their critics an unforced error to exploit, and by taking that approach at a moment of communal mourning, they earned double-points for alienating Mormons. 

The way I count it, American discourse lost. 

My Reaction as a Latter-day Saint

As much as I like my country, though, my faith runs deeper. In the long term, nations come and go, while religions extend through time--and, I believe, also transcend it. 

As a religious Latter-day Saint, I have a totally different reaction than I do as a Mormon-American. As an American, I wish the Times had reached beyond their own insularity. As a Latter-day Saint, I find it telling that they could not. The superficiality of the Times response is a witness to me of the depth and significance of a spiritual vision that even their substantial resources do not allow them to access. 

After all, if the nation's most prominent newspaper could plainly see what a prophet's life meant, what need would we have for prophets? Of course they miss they mark. Of course they fixate over a the latest controversies and can't see the subtle tapestry that connects us to one another on earth, the tiny dramas of discipleship that prepare us for exaltation. 

Of course they don't see an individual's lifelong commitment to listen to the still small voice as newsworthy. What to them is Tommy Monson's timely appearance, again and again, at someone's sick bed? What are his words of counsel to a quarreling couple in the middle of the night? His listening ear in a widow's living room or his familiar face at her funeral? 

Noise hides meaning. The wisdom of the wise will perish, Isaiah says. The kingdom of God creeps by on cat feet, hidden. 

If the Times could tell me how to live my life, what need would I have for the Holy Ghost? For a bedrock of values that go deeper than the latest news cycle? 

And so: as a Latter-day Saint, I rejoice when the prominent and the powerful miss the point. From a spiritual perspective, I appreciate it. 

President Monson never needed them to understand him. The world was blind to the prophets before him, too. 

15 comments:

  1. Great words. I love the cat feet analogy.

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  2. Tears to my heart & eyes, James.

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  3. They could stand to loose a few journalistic hacks and find a few more like you James. Perfectly stated.

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  4. Heartwarming,intellectual,spiritual,down to earth and brilliant.I got my testimony through prayer from the Holy Ghost not from a news rag!

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  5. Beautifully expressed. I'm Jami Bernards in Bentonville, AR. IDK why Google doesn't recognize me. I'm a faithful LDS. Thank you for your article. It's helped me sort out the larger narratives. I'll just add this scripture in afirmation.

    2 Peter 1:19
    We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.

    We thank thee, oh God, for a prophet!

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  6. I haven't been a blog reader, but now I probably will be. Yours will be my first real subscription. (I may have subscribed to things I don't read as part of a class assignment at some point.)

    Well done!

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  7. As an inactive member of the church who was linked here by a friend's Facebook, I take issue with a couple points here. To decry the polarization of America and then immediately identify a news outlet as 'left-leaning' is the definition of irony, given that news inherently has no political position beyond that which is ascribed to it by the author. My bigger issue is that the members of the church, MY church, are finally seeing how the rest of the world sees us outside of the 'friendly helpful neighbors' stereotype. Monson oversaw a period of the church punctuated by attacks against the children of homosexuals (who themselves are not practicing a so-called sin), against women, and against intellectual curiosity. Accountability sucks, but them's the breaks. Am I sad that President Monson died? Absolutely. Was anything in the article incorrect? No, it just hurt some feelings, like many true things do.

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    1. Woah, "news inherently has no political position"? That's just empirically untrue (And I'm a professional journalist). Even given the same set of facts, any news source has to construct a narrative that will flow for the reader and highlight things that will appeal to the particular demographic of their readership. In choosing what angles to use for that construction, it's almost impossible not to have a bias. Combine that with the fact that we live in a world where headlines have to be more and more sensationalized to stand out in the social media ocean, it's a recipe for extremes and polarized storytelling. To say that this was just the New York Times telling it like it is, is just blatantly misinformed to say. Compare just their tweet about Thomas S. Monson's passing vs. Hugh Hefner's and you'll see an enormous political lean towards normalizing exploitation and pornography and demonizing religious liberty and values. So much of their obit was painting Thomas S. Monson like this stick in the mud for not caving to activists for various causes, which reported by someone else could be an ode to a man who stuck to the doctrine and the standards that he believed were from God and would not be swayed by even enormous outside pressure. Everyone has an angle.

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  8. While I agree with the points you have made, you have ignored the fact that it isn't President Monson who was disrespected (since he was already dead), it was those of us who loved and admired him. The Times slapped 16 million Mormons in the face with the editorial, telling us that their current political orthodoxy is more important than the values we hold sacred: families, service, keeping commandments and covenants, forgiveness, faith, hope and love for God and for our fellow man (including shallow editorial writers). Yes, it was shoddy journalism also, but we will still do his temple ordinances for him vicariously. History goes to the survivors, and the faithful LDS will outlive the NY Times.

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  9. While I agree with the points you have made, you have ignored the fact that it isn't President Monson who was disrespected (since he was already dead), it was those of us who loved and admired him. The Times slapped 16 million Mormons in the face with the editorial, telling us that their current political orthodoxy is more important than the values we hold sacred: families, service, keeping commandments and covenants, forgiveness, faith, hope and love for God and for our fellow man (including shallow editorial writers). Yes, it was shoddy journalism also, but we will still do his temple ordinances for him vicariously. History goes to the survivors, and the faithful LDS will outlive the NY Times.

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  10. Sometimes I want to engrave your thoughts into my headboard so that I can recite them before bed. But that, I suppose, might also be missing the mark. Still, it would be pretty close.

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