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Media: Bylines on Strike

D-News reporters speak of the struggle over the paper’s soul.


Critics of Salt Lake City’s Deseret News have long joked of a still small voice whispering into the ears of its editorial board, prompting editors like Joe Cannon to believe that more Mo’ is mo’ better. But recent staff protests over the editorial direction of the paper’s “tone” and content suggest the old joke may be becoming a disturbing new reality.

On Feb. 24, nine reporters from the Deseret News pulled bylines from their articles—a longstanding newspaper tradition of protest. Stirring the pot was the revelation that city desk editor Chuck Gates and business editor Julianne Basinger had been demoted due to their disputes with Cannon over the LDS-friendly “tone” of the paper at the expense of unbiased news coverage.

Josh Loftin, the state government editor who helped orchestrate the byline revolt, says the disagreements weren’t just about tone. He says the LDS-friendly directive has resulted in stories being killed outright and coverage being diverted away from issues such as California’s Proposition 8—stories that could be perceived as reflecting poorly on the LDS Church.

“I can think of probably a dozen stories that just didn’t run.” Loftin says. “We had a scoop about the LDS Church’s hiring freeze—they didn’t run it,” Loftin says. “A week later, the church sent out a press release about the hiring freeze. Nobody can really explain that one.”

Loftin also noted a simple story in fall 2008 about a State Department report on religious freedom. The reporter highlighted countries that were, and were not, friendly to the LDS Church. Even though the reporter stayed close to the report’s neutral language, the article was pulled because of “tone.”

The biggest “head-scratcher” Loftin recalls was when one of his staff reported on a Brigham Young University law professor who was critical of legal arguments by supporters of California’s Proposition 8. “He basically said these arguments [to outlaw same-sex marriage] don’t have any weight to them. One of our reporters wrote a story on it, and [the paper] just didn’t run it,” Loftin says.

Loftin says issues surrounding gay rights and Proposition 8 brought the new agenda into focus. “We weren’t killing [Proposition 8] stories. They just weren’t letting us cover it,” he says, citing one protest rally at the City & County Building where a reporter wasn’t even dispatched. Other stories, he says, were buried in the back pages. On other occasions, religion reporters, instead of regular news reporters, were assigned to cover Prop 8 stories. “Typically the walls are pretty tall between church news and the city desk,” Loftin says.

Loftin had thought a balance had been struck since it seemed tension over “tone” had died down in recent months. Minority-issues reporter Aaron Falk, who came to his beat following the passage of Proposition 8 agrees. “All the stories I’ve written about Common Ground stuff, LGBT issues—have made it in the newspaper,” Falk says. “They might not have received the same play as they would in the Trib. [But] there hasn’t been a sinister effort to slant things or change the truth at all in my stories.”

But this uneasy truce seemed to break down with the demotions of Gates and Basinger. Deseret News Editor Joe Cannon contends the restructuring has been exaggerated. “I’d decided for a lot of different reasons that we needed to change the city desk editor, but Gates is still employed and at his same salary,” Cannon says. He added that Basinger was only reassigned because the new city desk editor, Tad Walch, wanted to pick his own staff. Both reassignments, Cannon says, are lateral moves.

He also doesn’t believe his paper is becoming a “niche” publication for Mormons.

“What we are interested in becoming is a publication that pays attention to our primarily Mormon readers—[who] also want an exceptional newspaper,” Cannon says. This direction, Cannon says, is paying off. “In newspaper-land, virtually every newspaper is losing circulation. We are one of a handful of publications staying steady or increasing circulations.”

Loftin and the rest of the staff plan to continue writing stories, even if the editor elects to “spike” them. Loftin credits the staff for not self-censoring stories they’re pursuing. Still, he believes the demotions were a clear message: “That dissent is not welcome,” Loftin says, adding, that by pulling their bylines, each reporter was sending his or her own message: “I chose dissent.”