Life in a Theocracy Without a Free Press

February 2005

Brigham Young, wrote a vengeful ex-wife, "loses his temper every morning over the Salt Lake Tribune--the leading Gentile paper of Utah--and longs for a return of the days when one word of his would have put a summary and permanent end to the existence of this sheet, by the utter annihilation of everything and, everybody connected with it. But the time is forever past when the unsheathing of his bowie-knife, or the crooking of his little finger,' pronounced sentence upon offenders, and the Gentile paper and its supporters flourish in spite of him."

The subject of this article is the history of proud Utah's independent newspapers and examines how the LDS church destroyed Utah's first free press, The Valley Tan, and repeated the process by silencing the late, great Salt Lake Tribune.

Michael Vigh, Elizabeth Neff And Kristen Moulton, "Anatomy of a Newspaper War" Salt Lake Tribune, June 9, 2002, wrote, "Days after the Deseret News failed to take over the Salt Lake Tribune in October 1999, chairman of the board Glen Snarr stayed up much of the night praying. By abandoning a bid to buy the Tribune, 'We would not own a newspaper that would continue its war of hate against us under our ownership,' Snarr that morning told first counselor Thomas S. Monson. 'It is more palatable to have our enemy owned elsewhere.'

Reminiscences of Early Utah, Robert N. Baskin

Upon becoming acquainted with Stephen DeWolfe who, in 1860, was the editor of Valley Tan, the first Gentile paper published in Utah, I expressed to him my disbelief of what I had heard asserted respecting the massacre. He replied that what I had heard was true, that he had carefully investigated the matter, and had published in the Valley Tan a true version of the crime. He subsequently gave me a copy of that paper, and the occurrences respecting the massacre therein stated were substantially the same as was afterward shown by the evidence in the first trial of John D. Lee. In an editorial he also asserted that the Mormons had perpetrated other horrible crimes, and that none of the participants had been prosecuted by the Mormon authorities. After the appearance of that editorial a committee of Mormons, of which Jeter Clinton, the police magistrate of Salt Lake City was spokesman, waited upon Mr. DeWolfe and demanded a retraction of what he had written. Mr. Clinton stated that unless the retraction was made he would not be responsible for the safety of Mr. DeWolfe, as the editorial had created great excitement among the people, and many threats of violence had been made against its author. The next editorial written by Mr. DeWolfe after the demand to retract had been made upon him, and which met with his refusal was far from apologetic.

The next day after the committee had waited on Mr. DeWolfe, Arthur Stainer, a hunchback bookkeeper for Brigham Young, entered the office of Mr. DeWolfe, who arose to greet him. Stainer approached with uplifted hands and pronounced upon him in the most solemn manner, and in the name of Jesus Christ, a curse. In relating the incident to me Mr. DeWolfe laughingly said, "he cursed me from head to foot, and wound up by cursing my powers and parts of procreation, at which I took him by the collar and ejected him from my office."

Michael Scherer, "The News In Mormon Country," Columbia Journalism Review, March-April 2003

Almost anywhere else, this symbolic blurring of church and state might seem exceptional. But in Utah, the line was never clearly drawn. More than a century after Young founded a new Zion on the western frontier; the region still functions as a quasi-theocracy. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints still dominates politics, local media, and culture. It claims membership of roughly two-thirds of the state's residents and annual revenues that have been estimated at $6 billion. It is Utah's largest employer and Salt Lake City's largest landowner. Roughly 90 percent of the state legislature is Mormon, as are the governor, the House and Senate delegations, and a majority of the state's Supreme Court and federal judiciary. In addition to Salt Lake's afternoon daily, the Deseret News, the church owns the state's largest television and news radio station and is buying two more of Salt Lake's top five radio stations. Public schools still allow midday recesses for religious study; some have even banned Monday night activities in deference to the church's traditional time for family worship. Mormons who publicly criticize church doctrine can still face excommunication, and critical news sources sometimes run the risk of ecclesiastical sanction.

For 132 years, Utah's other major daily, the Salt Lake Tribune, has more or less defined itself against these interests. Far more than the Deseret News, the Tribune has reported aggressively in recent years on the political favors that benefited the church, on the ties between the Mormon church and the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee, and the church's controversial conversion of a piece of Main Street into a religious park. The paper infuriated church leaders with a three-day series about a frontier massacre that may have been ordered by Brigham Young. But the newspaper's independence is now in question….

Such delicate concerns, and the peculiar historical role of the Tribune, distinguish journalism in Utah. There are some signs that Singleton is learning the ropes. When he visited the paper in July, he lambasted an editorial cartoon by the Tribune's Pat Bagley that lampooned--in typical Tribune fashion--Deseret News readers. It portrayed non-Mormon readers of a new morning Deseret News spitting out the coffee, an oblique reference to the Mormon prohibition of certain caffeinated drinks.

"You won't see cartoons like yesterday's," Singleton told the Tribune staff when asked about any changes he would make. "We will treat our partners with respect." Bagley, whose biting wit often ruffles the feathers of church leaders, thought that his job might be on the line. "So I asked him to clarify," Bagley says. "And he did a hundred-eighty-degree turn. I have free rein as long as I stay away from the lawsuit."

Peter Waldman, the Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2000.

James Wall, the Deseret News publisher, says the church never planned to take over the Tribune's news department, only the joint papers' business operations. Yet in a November 1997 letter to Mr. Snarr, Deseret News Editor John Hughes offered detailed proposals for content and personnel changes at a church-owned Tribune. One read: "Exploit the presence of a non-Mormon editor (assuming you keep him) to reassure faint-hearted non-Mormon subscribers." Mr. Wall dismisses that letter as just "an editor's musings."

AT&T's Plan to Sell Newspaper Adds Fuel to a Salt Lake Feud Peter Waldman, the Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2000.

But the Tribune publisher acknowledges that the paper's coverage of the church has also grown tougher in recent years, antagonizing its business partner. Earlier this year, he was summoned for an unusual meeting with Mormon Church President Gordon B. Hinckley and his two top counselors. Everyone was cordial, Mr. Welch says, but the Mormon leaders expressed dismay at a recent Tribune series that delved into the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, when 120 California-bound emigrants from Arkansas were slaughtered by Mormon zealots and their Indian subordinates.

At the same meeting, Mr. Welch says, church leaders expressed disappointment in a 1998 Tribune series on polygamy (which the church discourages) and a 1991 article about traditional Mormon practices such as baptizing certain dead people, including William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower.

"They don't like us to bring up old history," Mr. Welch says. Just a few weeks ago, the church publicly slammed the Tribune for an article accusing the church of misleading people about its intentions for a parcel of downtown Salt Lake City real estate.

A church spokeswoman says the church won't comment on the Tribune's coverage. But William B. Smart, the Deseret News's editor and general manager from 1975 until 1988, says he has noticed a marked decline in the Tribune's efforts at what he calls "community building." He cites the series on the Mountain Meadows Massacre as a particularly telling example of the Tribune becoming "overblown and needlessly abrasive."

Week of February 27 to March 5, 2001. Lucinda Fleeson, "The Battle of Salt Lake," American Journalism Review

Shortly after the Tribune devoted most of its Sunday front page to the [Mountain Meadows] story, the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints summoned Tribune Publisher Dominic Welch to 47 East South Temple Street, the imposing columned granite Mormon headquarters. There, Welch remembers, Mormon leaders castigated the Tribune for bringing up old history at a time when they sought healing.

The Tribune's managers charge that news stories about the massacre and other matters the church would just as soon keep quiet are responsible, at least in part, for what they portray as a recent Mormon Church-led raid on their newspaper. In December, the Salt Lake Tribune was sold in a hostile takeover to Denver-based media mogul William Dean Singleton and his MediaNews Group. The Tribune's managers--who wanted to buy the paper--went to court, charging that Mormon Church leaders pressured Tribune owner AT&T and conspired with Singleton, who in their view acted as a front for the Mormon Church.

Singleton, AT&T executives and managers at the Mormon Church-owned Deseret News, Salt Lake City's afternoon daily, all deny such conspiracy assertions. The Tribune managers were unsuccessful in winning a restraining order against the sale but are pursuing a suit against Singleton, the phone company and the Deseret News for changing the joint operating agreement governing the two papers.

The events leading to the takeover of the Tribune are far more complex than a series of news stories. They involve 150 years of bad blood between Salt Lake City's two dailies, as well as unexpected repercussions that reverberate from media mergers.

Church President Hinckley promised him editorial independence. "Those assurances were adequate and have been honored," he says.

Even so, Hughes faxes editorials over to the church headquarters for review, a practice he deems appropriate, and similar to that at the Monitor. All of his newspaper's profits revert to church coffers and have been enough to buy Hughes a stunning paneled office with a view of the mountains in a new nine-story downtown building.

Hughes' counterpart, Tribune Editor James E. "Jay" Shelledy, is unabashed about most of his paper's aggressive postures, saying: "We don't just take press releases. We hammer hard on diversity, on the Legislature's conflicts of interest. We tend to give women, minorities, Democrats more ink than their numbers and power bases would otherwise dictate." Shelledy picked up a recent Sunday section devoted to gays in Utah and waved it. "They never would have done this story. Never."

(Hughes concedes the point, saying he thought the story was "irrelevant.") Shelledy also seems to take delight in tweaking the nose of the Mormon Church, with stories focusing on the church's practice of baptizing the deceased and polygamy, which is still practiced by about 30,000 renegades in southern Utah.

One story that Shelledy kept quiet, however, was about attempts by the Tribune management and the News to buy the Tribune from AT&T. Tribune reporter Chris Smith says he learned in February 2000 that U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) had met with AT&T executives in mid-1999 on behalf of the Deseret News, regarding its possible acquisition of the Tribune. Not until more than 50 staff members signed an October 2 petition asking management to run a story about Hatch's intervention did the piece surface.

"The petition was a good prompt," says Shelledy, who says that the paper had been holding off on coverage because it had been contemplating a suit against AT&T at the time. The incident spotlights the inherent conflicts of interest that arise when a newspaper covers, or doesn't cover, itself or its business partner.

"You've got to wonder what we're doing in partnership with the Mormon Church, anyway," says reporter Smith, "as it is the major institution that we cover."

The church hierarchy at first denied that it was trying to buy a controlling interest in the rival and only admitted it when court papers became public. President Hinckley contended then that the church would have spun off the property, as it supports two independent editorial voices for Utah's largest city.

Hatch, who is public about his membership in the Mormon Church, is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has broad oversight over mergers--including those involving AT&T. The senator has since stated that he was only meeting with AT&T on behalf of a constituent to advise the phone company that he didn't see any antitrust problems if the Deseret News acquired another newspaper. Hatch has also conceded the meeting was an error, as it created what he says was the false appearance that he was trying to influence AT&T. "That's like the elephant saying, 'Please disregard that I was having sex with the mouse,' " contends Shelledy.

--Will Bagley