The Mormon Moment may have officially passed, but the Mormon Media Studies Symposium carries on. The event, in its third iteration, looks at the relationship between the media and Mormonism, including the recent decree of Elder David A. Bednar for church members to "flood the earth with gospel messages of truth." BYU journalism professor Joel Campbell, who previously worked for the Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune, is a co-organizer of the symposium and gave City Weekly a preview of some of the topics that will be discussed at the free event (BYU Salt Lake Center, 3 Triad Center, 345 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City, Oct. 17, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.).
What is the LDS Church's relationship with journalism?
Over time, the church has tried to curry the favor of the media or, if they didn't like what the media was doing, they did their own thing. The paper I'm giving is about a fascinating time in the 1850s when the church had openly embraced polygamy, and four of the Twelve Apostles were sent to four different cities to start newspapers. The whole reason for them to print these newspapers was to counter the negative media and to do their own message, to represent themselves.
John Taylor, who later became a Mormon prophet, was sent to New York, and probably the most high-profile of the four papers was his, called The Mormon, in New York City. He set up shop in the shadow of The New York Times and the other big papers of the time, and actually got in verbal spars in his newspaper with them—they would print things about Mormons in their papers and he would respond to them. It was not in the muted way that they do today. The recent same-sex marriage decision got maybe four sentences out of the church, but John Taylor would go for the jugular. It was much more combative.
How else has the LDS Church's relationship with the media changed over time?
Initially, going back to 1830, there was curiosity, and mostly objective reporting—they didn't portray Mormons as being too weird. And then when you start seeing people who dissented from the church, and the rumors of polygamy started, that's when you start getting the whole weirdness factor. And when the Mormons went west and became isolated, they were months away from responding to reports in newspapers. There were a lot of people who came out and did very jaded reports about what was happening in Utah. The Salt Lake Tribune started up and was the leading source for a lot of dissenters. Things narrowed out as you get into the '20s and '30s, and from the '60s until the '90s, most coverage of Mormons was that these were pretty normal Christians. But then you see the rise of the evangelicals who see Mormons as a threat, and in '90s, the rise of the anti-Mormonism that had been present all along but became much more sophisticated. In the first Mitt Romney campaign, a lot of the reporters were going to the evangelicals and the people who were critical of the church. During the second Mitt Romney campaign, I think there was a little more sophistication, and people trying to report a bit more fairly. It's been a mixed bag over the years.
Why is the church now focusing on social media?
For a long time the church tried to convince journalists to write about them, to varying degrees of success, and now they're saying, "We're going to have members of the church go directly on social media." Mormons have more tools to share not just their doctrine, but also their perception. I think that's apparent with Meet the Mormons—doing your own show, controlling the message—and also the "sweep the world" thing of Elder Bednar. Meet the Mormons has the "we're not as weird as you think we are" kinda message. Although, I'm not convinced that a lot of non-Mormons will take their time and spend their dime to go see it. But it's certainly self-affirming for a lot of Mormons.
How will Utah Mormons receive The Book of Mormon musical when it comes to Salt Lake City in 2015?
I think it'll be a mixed bag. A former student of mine is now a political editor at Buzzfeed. He covered the Romney campaign and during that time also kinda became the interpreter of Mormons. And he said it was a valentine to Mormons. The church was pretty mellow in its response, which was, "Yeah, it's a fun-loving night at the theater, but it really doesn't show reality." It was sort of like, "We've arrived now, to the well-known point of being made fun of." I think the Mormons will go see it. They might come down on the bad language, but I don't think there's going to be any protests or anything.