Last week, Bloomberg’s Business Week published Caroline Winter’s article “How Mormons make money.” The article quickly got traction, even eliciting a fairly lengthy press release from the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, the piece went viral — at least in the LDS community — after Business Week released the cover for the issue.
In case you haven’t seen it, the cover features an illustration of John the Baptist bestowing the priesthood on Joseph Smith Jr. and Oliver Cowdery. That wouldn’t be so bad, if not for the speech bubble. In this instance, John the Baptist’s blessing ends with “And thou shalt build a shopping mall, own stock in Burger King and open a Polynesian theme park in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax” as Joseph Smith Jr. shouts, “Hallelujah!”
Needless to say, the cover ruffled some feathers.
Growing up in an area with few Church members, I used to hearing and seeing statements that could be easily be seen as offensive. Usually, people honestly didn’t know their question could have been construed as offensive. As such, it takes a lot before I see commentary or “criticism” about the Church as crossing the line. Business Week has cross my line.
Mostly, my issue comes down to context.
First, I would have no problem with such an image being on South Park, Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show, but I do have a problem with it on the cover of Business Week. The former are comedy shows and make a living from mocking people from all backgrounds. The latter is a news organization. As such, there should be a certain level of decorum which I believe was disregarded here.
Second, rather than portraying the substance of the article, the illustration strives for pure shock factor. The article itself, I believe, was well written, researched and within the bounds of professional journalism. Winter interviewed a variety of sources with different viewpoints on the subject — from Bishop Keith B. McMullin, formerly of the Presiding Bishopric, and Sheri Dew to members concerned by recent Church investments. It accurately delved into the unusually mysterious realm of Church finances. However, the cover illustration did not reflect this balanced approach. Instead, it simply intended to be as sensationalist as possible.
In some ways the sensationalism has paid off. In our Internet-based world, it can be hard for anything to break through the noise. Pop-ups, hyperlinks and new tabs are constantly vying for the reader’s attention. Sensationalist covers like Business Week’s break through the noise. But with such success, discussion of complex issues become heated, polarized and — in the end — unproductive.
Winter’s article had a real chance to open up conversation about the workings of the Church’s finances. It provided an opportunity to discuss the cultural heritage and importance of financial independence within the LDS community. Individuals could discuss the differences between humanitarian aid and welfare services. They could also discuss if there is anything wrong a religious organization sustaining itself with business investments. Is it a misuse of funds or a way to ensure future charitable work? Who knows, maybe such a civil discussion could also help lead to more financial transparency.
But a sensationalist cover quickly ended such a discussion. Instead, any productive conversation has been overshadowed by insults hurled back and forth on Internet forums. Doors and ears are now shut in favor of shouting matches. Such is the price of an article breaking through the noise.
Katie Harmer is the issues and ideas editor at The Universe. This viewpoint represents her opinions and not necessarily those of BYU, its administration or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.