The New York Times Speaks Ill of the Dead

By Mark Kellner Published on January 7, 2018

When a prominent religious leader dies, how should secular media treat the event? The New York Times, America’s “newspaper of record,” gives us some lessons. On what to avoid.

This past week Thomas S. Monson died at age 90. He was the 16th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). Since the group has 16 million members (some 6 million in the U.S.), Monson was certainly a figure important enough for a major newspaper to note. Whatever we think of his church’s doctrines, he’s a man who’d given decades of service. Millions loved and admired him.

Accentuate the Divisive

Here’s how The New York Times led off its obituary:

Thomas S. Monson, who as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2008 enlarged the ranks of female missionaries, but rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage, died on Tuesday at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 90. …

Breathless Praise for Hugh Hefner

Pretty tendentious, no? Is that the standard Times policy for obituaries? Not consistently. On September 27, Hugh Hefner died. He was the founder of Playboy magazine. His life and lifestyle modeled hedonism for several generations of American men. He made hundreds of millions commodifying women. Here’s how the paper began its remembrance:

Hugh Hefner, who created Playboy magazine and spun it into a media and entertainment-industry giant — all the while, as its very public avatar, squiring attractive young women (and sometimes marrying them) well into his 80s — died on Wednesday at his home, the Playboy Mansion, in the Holmby Hills area of Los Angeles. He was 91.

The Times celebrated Hefner, while slamming Monson as a stick-in-the-mud unwilling to lead his flock into modern times.

Integrity or Kellerism?

Two days before the Monson obituary, the paper’s new publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, introduced himself to readers. He quoted his great-great-grandfather Adolph Ochs. When Ochs bought the then-failing Times in 1896, he pledged the newspaper would be “dedicated to journalism of the highest integrity.”

The Monson obituary is not that. Instead, it’s a piece of “Kellerism.” Veteran religion reporter and media critic Terry Mattingly coined that term. He named it for Bill Keller, a former Times executive editor. In a 2011 syndicated column, Mattingly quoted Keller’s response to the question of whether the newspaper is “liberal”:

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.”

Little Potted Liberal Sermons All the Time

Given that prevailing attitude at the Times, should its treatment of the late Mr. Monson surprise us? Right after announcing Monson’s death, the Times declared:

Facing vociferous demands to recognize same-sex marriage, and weathering demonstrations at church headquarters by Mormon women pleading for the right to be ordained as priests, Mr. Monson did not bend. Teachings holding homosexuality to be immoral, bans on sexual intercourse outside male-female marriages, and an all-male priesthood would remain unaltered.

You don’t have to be a member of the LDS Church — and I’m not one — to see how caustic this is. Monson’s faith wasn’t in keeping with the worldview of The New York Times. So they took potshots at the dead.

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Why the News So Often Seems Fake

Many folks who had a different picture of Monson in their minds took to Twitter to denounce the tone of the Times’ obituary. This near-instant reaction from readers suggests yet another reason why confidence in American journalism is low. Only 27-percent have “a great deal” of trust in newspapers, according to a 2017 Gallup survey.

It’s perfectly possible to write about the famous and note controversies. I had the privilege of writing an obituary of Monson published by Religion News Service. It also appeared on USA Today’s website. My article discussed the issue of gays and the Mormon faith. But without deriding either side.

Does A.G. Sulzberger want to truly honor his ancestor’s wishes for The New York Times? To publish “journalism of the highest integrity”? Then a conversation with his editors and reporters might be in order. Advocacy journalism inserted into an obituary of a dedicated leader doesn’t suggest integrity at all.

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