The Mormons Score a 9.6
by Jan Shipps
If stereotypes were glass, the ice-covered floor of the stadium where the
closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics were held would have been
littered with shards. Shattered were the images of Mormonism as a peculiar
faith tradition ensconced in the intermountain region of the American West,
and of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as spooky
clean-cut zealots whose main goal is making converts.
Rather than being pestered to convert to their faith, most visitors to
Salt Lake City encountered Latter-day Saints who were simply doing their
best to be, as the church put it, "gracious hosts." Youthful and
attractive "lady missionaries" were eager to answer religious
questions, but only on historic Temple Square. Elsewhere the Saints were
just there to be helpful and, no less significantly, to join in the fun.
And at the end of the day, the print and electronic coverage of Mormonism
accompanying the story of the international festival of sport created a new
picture of the LDS Church and its members that is unlikely to be ephemeral.
This splintering of the old Mormon stereotypes occurred because the
leaders of the Latter-day Saints took advantage of the Olympics to introduce
modern Mormonism to the world. But as successful as Olympic coverage turned
out to be for the Saints, it does not follow that the church was the
animating factor behind getting the games for Salt Lake City.
Success in getting the Olympics had been devoutly wished by the state’s
burgeoning tourist industry because holding the games in Utah would be the
best possible way to advertise the area as a perfect natural habitat for
devotees of winter sports. Getting the games would, it was hoped, generate
an improved airport, a better ground transportation system, and new hotels
and restaurants. City boosters also believed that placing the spotlight on
Salt Lake City would reveal an "Intermountain Silicon Valley"—a
city of the future, not the past.
In a word, those who led the charge to get the games—Mormons and
non-Mormons alike—seemed interested in putting Salt Lake City on the map
as something other than the center place of Mormonism.
Did the "Brethren" who preside over the church recognize this?
In April 1997 I asked church President Gordon B. Hinckley whether the LDS
Church had actively supported attempts to get the Olympic bid for Salt Lake
City. He said that the church hierarchy had been divided on the issue,
though he would not tell me who opposed the bid or why they did so. No doubt
some worried that the Olympics would divert the church from its three-fold
mission of preserving the Saints, redeeming the dead (through proxy
ordinances in Mormon temples), and carrying the gospel to the world.
Moreover, the inescapable international media attention would be sure to
provide unwelcome reminders of the church’s 19th century practice of
plural marriage, as well as such other perennial media favorites as the
Mountain Meadows Massacre (when a group of Indians and Mormon pioneers
slaughtered all the adults in an Arkansas wagon train) and the church’s
reputed fabulous wealth.
Still, after gifts and services to International Olympic Committee
officials that amounted to bribery, Salt Lake City received the nod. And the
church followed up with a carefully planned and orchestrated public
relations campaign that began with distribution of miniature faux leather
briefcases with the LDS Olympic logo stamped on them in gold to 3,600
journalists around the globe. Inside was an extensive list of "great
story ideas" about Mormonism—the church’s "worldwide
humanitarian service," "health code helps Mormons live
longer," "a day in the life of a missionary," and so on.
Next came a handsome four-color "Glimpses of Utah" calendar in
which nine of the 15 images and well over half the accompanying text dealt
with Mormon themes. Then there was an easy-to-use link from the church’s
home page (www.lds.org) to all the
resources a reporter could want in order to do stories about the Latter-day
Saints and their church—including downloadable high-resolution photographs
and TV and radio sound clips about virtually every aspect of Mormonism. (The
link also served as a rapid-response mechanism for Public Affairs staff to
correct any journalistic errors and to challenge negative depictions of
Mormonism and its role in Utah’s culture.)
In mid-January 2002 Public Affairs opened an LDS News Resource Center
staffed by specialists assisted by 350 volunteers. No fewer than 1,324
accredited reporters registered, gaining access to the Center’s rich store
of information—and to all the croissants, fruit, and other snack foods
they could consume.
During the 12 months prior to the games, the church honed its message
down to two main points: Mormonism is "Christian but different";
and as a practical religion specializing in health, longevity, and the
quality of family relationships, it makes people happy.
There is no question that the church’s PR effort shaped the way
Mormonism was covered in the tens of thousands of stories about the Olympic
games filed worldwide between early December and the end of February.
According to Michael Otterson, the LDS Director of Media Relations who
became the church’s primary spokesperson during the games, an overwhelming
majority—perhaps 95 percent—of the stories featuring Mormonism and/or
the LDS Church were either "positive or fair." He could, he told
me in March, "count on the fingers of both hands" the truly
negative articles published in English language newspapers.
A good place to begin the reckoning of media coverage of the Olympics’
"Mormon angle" is the rivalry between Salt Lake City’s two daily
newspapers, the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune.
Founded in 1850 as an official organ of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, the News, an afternoon paper, turned into a more
or less standard daily in the early 20th century. The church, which still
controls it indirectly through a self-perpetuating board, maintains the
ultimate say about content as well as editorial policy. For its part, the Tribune,
founded by Mormon dissidents in 1870, has always represented itself as an
independent voice—independent, that is, of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints. Until well into the 1930s, the LDS church hierarchy and
many church members considered the Tribune an anti-Mormon rag.
The mid-20th century saw considerable mellowing of the Tribune’s
opposition to the activities of Mormon leaders and what its earlier editors
often described as the Saints’ control of the city and state. The new
cordiality, combined with pressure to cut costs, led in 1952 to a joint
operating agreement with the News. Since then the two papers have
shared advertising, circulation, promotion, and printing facilities while
remaining editorially and financially independent of each other.
The comity came to an end in the mid-1990s, when the News’
publishers started to consider challenging the Tribune’s dominant
position as a morning paper and the Tribune’s ownership changed
hands. When Salt Lake City was chosen to host the 2002 games, the Tribune,
harking back to its anti-Mormon past, became editorially skeptical about the
The Tribune’s opening salvo came on an issue peripherally
related to the Olympics: the city council’s narrow vote along religious
lines to approve the church’s offer to buy a block of Main Street between
Temple Square and its Joseph Smith Building where it would construct a plaza
that would be open to all. Picking up on the fact that neither tobacco nor
alcohol would be permitted on what was supposed to be public space, the Tribune
argued that the sale undermined church-state separation. The closing of Main
Street was interpreted as an effort to unfairly position the church as the
tourist center of a metropolis that, with an equal population of Mormons and
non-Mormons, was increasingly diverse.
A similar controversy arose several years later, when the paper protested
the decision to locate the Medals Plaza in a direct visual line with the
towers of the Salt Lake Mormon Temple—thereby giving the church a visual
boost every time a medal ceremony was shown on TV.
Between the two plaza disputes, the Tribune took up so many other
causes that it was hard not to conclude that the paper was convinced the
church was involved in a conspiracy to control the games. The paper gave
continuous attention, for example, to non-Mormon concerns that Utah’s
restrictive liquor laws would undermine the games’ success—an issue that
became a staple of national Olympic coverage.
A critical moment in media coverage came in November 1998 when stories
that local organizers had spent huge sums of money to secure the games for
Salt Lake City started circulating. The massive international news frenzy
that followed was a signal embarrassment for the city and the state.
But from the standpoint of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints, the most significant outcome was that—especially within the United
States—the bribery story was a Salt Lake City story rather than a Mormon
one. To be sure, the men involved were Latter-day Saints. But they were not
acting as agents for the church.
Moreover, while it turned out that church-owned corporations had joined
with other local business entities to support the bid financially, not until
a week before the scandal broke had President Hinckley started encouraging
church members to volunteer their services during the games. Accordingly it
was easier for the church to move forward with its publicity campaign
without being defensive regarding how the invitation was secured for the
On February 8, 2001, USA Today published "One Year to
Go" as its front-page centerpiece. With the conspicuous exception of
polygamy, this story (along with sidebars on the opening ceremonies and NBC’s
plans for its television coverage) made mention of virtually every issue
about Mormonism that would be visited by the media in the year to come. The Minneapolis
Star-Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor published their
own countdown stories, and news outlets big and small marked the occasion
with wire copy and radio roundups.
During the spring and summer, reasonably sound descriptions of Mormonism
and the Utah scene were published in a variety of major metropolitan
dailies. Among these, the Baltimore Sun and the Boston Globe
both addressed the question of whether the games would be the "Molympics."
The answer was no, according to Mitt Romney, the successful entrepreneur
and sometime politician who was summoned from Boston to serve as president
of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee in the wake of the bribery
revelations. Asked to clean up the mess, raise millions and millions of
dollars, and get everything ready for the games, he needed all the help he
Yet too much help from the LDS Church could have made it appear that the
Brethren were the ones who were really making all the key decisions (and
that could have dried up other monies). As the opening came closer, church
spokespeople echoed Romney’s declaration that while the church was willing
to assist, it would only do so "upon request."
Coincidentally or otherwise, the Brethren seized the moment to lay down
the church’s position about nomenclature. After an interview with Apostle
Dallin H. Oaks, New York Times religion reporter Gustav Niebuhr
reported that the church would be advising journalists and reminding its own
members that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should not be
called the "Mormon Church." Neither should it be called the
If, in their stories, writers needed to make a second reference, it
should be to "The Church" (note the upper-case letters) or
"The Church of Jesus Christ." This renewed emphasis on the full
name of the church and the effort to end the use of "Mormon
Church" expressed the church’s concern that it be understood as a
Much of the subsequent coverage failed to convey both dimensions of the
"Christian but different" story. Either such great stress was
placed on the church’s emphasis on family values that it was pictured as a
merely idiosyncratic form of Protestantism that had made its way into the
American mainstream. Or else reporters focused so much on distinctive Mormon
beliefs and worship practices that it seemed too different to really be
Christian. Only a handful of newspaper accounts and one or two in-depth
stories in widely circulated newsmagazines managed to keep both balls in the
Kenneth L. Woodward’s August 10 cover story in Newsweek was
notably successful in conveying the church’s own presentation of exactly
how it is Christian and why it differs so dramatically from all other forms
of Christianity. Surprisingly for a cover story, however, Woodward’s
narrative contained not a single quotable observation from a Mormon
"general authority." Notwithstanding the church’s care and
feeding of journalists in the pre-Olympic period, Public Affairs could not
find a single member of the First Presidency or Council of the 12 willing to
talk to Woodward during the week he spent in Salt Lake City.
Why? Even though everyone knew that this venerable religion writer was
preparing a major article on the church for a highly visible news venue,
these 15 men have long memories. None of them has been particularly pleased
with what Woodward has written about the Saints from time to time for over a
quarter of a century. That may explain why, despite the fact that Woodward
got most everything right, Public Affairs leapt into action to correct a few
By contrast, there was no corrective response at all to Lawrence Wright’s
lengthy New Yorker article, even though the message it conveyed was
that today’s Latter-day Saints are caught in such an intellectual and
spiritual time warp that Mormonism is not merely different but entirely
other. One obvious reason for the lack of any official LDS rejoinder is that
Wright’s article was a failed Mormon media coup about which Public Affairs
seems to have decided the less said the better.
Here is what happened. Making plans to get the Mormon story out, someone
at Edelman Public Relations in New York City—a firm that has a continuing
contractual relationship with the LDS Church—had the bright idea of
approaching the New Yorker and suggesting a profile of President
Hinckley. (In view of his interviews with Mike Wallace and Larry King,
Hinckley has become something of a media personality.)
This idea was approved, the magazine was "sold," and Wright
took the assignment very seriously. Reading practically everything about
Mormonism he could get his hands on and spending a month in Utah doing
interviews, he expanded his focus from the church president and contemporary
Mormon-ism to the history of the faith tradition and the peculiar culture
that it spawned.
Scheduled to appear last fall, the article was delayed for months by the
events of September 11 and appeared, on the eve of the games, at half its
original length. As published, it concentrated so much on Mountain Meadows,
polygamy, and the many ways in which this faith is a radical departure from
traditional Christianity that it failed to get around to making much sense
of modern Mormonism. Aside from a short section on Hinckley early in the
piece, the focus on today’s church and its members was squeezed into a
single page at the end.
With the opening of the games themselves, the news about the Latter-day
Saints was that they were not news. Their low profile, their refusal to
mount a proselytizing crusade, and their willingness even to laugh at
themselves generated articles that were interesting even to long-time
observers of Mormonism, and surely a pleasure for Latter-day Saints to read.
The journalists who went to Utah expecting an insular and repressive
culture found instead a reasonably ordinary American cultural scene that was
made more engaging because of the celebratory milieu, incredible mountain
scenery, and perfect weather for Winter games. Curiously, the church’s
multi-media extravaganza that was presented in the astonishing new
21,000-seat Conference Center was almost entirely ignored. The journalists
focused instead on everyday encounters with friendly and helpful members of
A handful of over-the-top stories were published—for example, the London
Daily Mail’s "Sex, God, and Skis: Welcome to Polygamy City."
A Woody Paige column in the Denver Post claiming that jello-eating
Salt Lake City had "royally screwed up the Olympics" was so
outrageous that Paige felt obliged to write a follow-up column apologizing
to Mormons, Utahans, and anyone else angered by a "satire that did not
But over all, little ink was devoted to polygamy, to a teetotal people
who did not know how to have fun, to a Mormon conspiracy to take over the
games. Stereotypes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and
its members were revised. But whether the Olympics did much to change the
cultural situation in central Utah is a more complicated issue.
As a result of being in the media spotlight—and thanks in no small
measure to the Tribune’s renewed hostility to the LDS Church—longstanding
tensions between Mormons and non-Mormons came to the fore dramatically in
the year before the Olympics. Trying to bridge the divide, Salt Lake City
Mayor Rocky Anderson—who was reared as a Mormon but no longer considers
himself one—took the initiative in creating an "Alliance for
Unity" that brought LDS leaders together with leaders of the non-Mormon
community. The goal of this effort, in the words of Alliance for Unity
co-founder (and Mormon) John Huntsman, was "to start healing the wounds
of the state."
President Hinckley warned the Saints not to adopt "holier than
thou" attitudes and other LDS leaders encouraged church members to stop
calling the members of other faith groups non-Mormons, thereby defining by
negation rather than affirmation. Apostle Oaks weighed in, saying that
"neighbors" was the term he endorsed. And indeed, during the
period of the games, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proved,
as one observer said, that it could "do the pluralism thing."
Now that the Olympics are over, will the effort to heal the wounds go
forward? Or will the cultural and religious stresses and strains be pushed
back beneath the surface?
A Feb. 25, 2002 story in the New York Times was headed "Utah’s
Changes May Be as Fleeting as Olympic Glory." Utahans should devoutly
hope it won’t be so.
See Sidebar, The Indispensable