A Mormon Washington Post?

December 30, 2004 | 12 comments
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Among other reasons that I like living in Washington DC is the Washington Post. It is on occasion of course a partisan rag, but, hey, it is my partisan rag. It is certainly much better than the trash that they read in some city farther up the coast. The world might have been different, however, had the Post gone Mormon. Apparently it almost did.

In March 1915, J. Reuben Clark, then a Washington DC based lawyer, learned that the owner of the Washington Post might want to sell the paper. He immediately wrote a letter to his contact in the First Presidency’s office, asking:

Would it not be worth while for President Smith to acquire for the people, through subscription by trustworthy members, either the control of the paper (as he may think best), or the ownership of a large part of it? I recommend the securing of the control which I think can be down. Obviously to retain the value which such a medium would have, it would be necessary that the interest of our people should not be known. (quoted in D. Michael Quinn, Elder Statesman, 24)

In the end the owner decided not to sell the paper and nothing came of Clarke’s proposal. Still it is interesting to imagine what might have been. In the 1880s the Church laid out a fair amount of money to purchase favorable press coverage (a pretty common political tactic in the era), and Joseph F. Smith kicked money in from time to time to keep the organ of Reed Smoot’s political machine in Utah from coming apart at the seams. Furthermore, there were attempts to establish a Mormon paper in Washington, DC from at least the 1850s on. (Orson Pratt’s marvelously strange theological speculations were published in The Seer, a short-lived Mormon paper in DC.) As it actually turns out the only Mormon owned media outlet of which I am aware in Washington is 103.5 FM, our local classical music station. The Post would have been much more fun…

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12 Responses to A Mormon Washington Post?

  1. Julie in Austin on December 30, 2004 at 6:44 pm

    Yeah, but . . .

    IIRC from Katherine Graham’s _Personal History_, WP was third-rate until her father got ahold of it. Would LDS ownership have changed that?

    And, do you think LDS owners would have broken Watergate?

  2. a random John on December 30, 2004 at 10:00 pm

    Julie,
    Senator Bennett would have been even more anxious to talk if the Church owned the paper. :)

  3. clark on December 30, 2004 at 10:32 pm

    Of course as I understand, during the 20th century the church did start buying up a lot of media through Bonneville Communications and had significant ownership in quite a few newspapers. It didn’t appear to affect editorial decisions, given that their share of the LA Times didn’t exactly stop quite a bit of harsh articles about the church.

  4. Jeremiah J. on December 30, 2004 at 11:08 pm

    Nate, the Wa Post is my hometown paper, too, as you know. As for the trash they’re reading up the coast, are you referring to the NY Post or the WSJ? [wink] Let me follow your link here…

    When you say partisan rag, do you mean that statement to be redundant? In other words: “sometimes it’s partisan, which makes it a rag.” In my experience it is often the former but almost never the latter. One might also ask: a rag compared to what? On the Post’s worst day it’s still better than almost everything else. It’s nice that we’re all calling for balance in journalism, but unfortunately it hasn’t made journalism much better, and the respect for journalists continues to plummet. In fact the new importance of “balance” gives an immediate sense of importance to those outlets who see themselves as providing balance (i.e. conservative outlets), even when their journalism isn’t that good. When I was in DC the Washington Times was putting Bill Gertz’s stories about Chinese secret lasers on the front page. More recently they put his crackpot story about Russians stealing the Al Qa Qa weapons cache top right. It would be very nice if DC had a *good* conservative paper to go along with the Post, but two good liberal papers would be better than what they have now.

  5. Rosalynde Welch on December 31, 2004 at 9:21 am

    (Relatively) apropos of LDS newspapermen…

    In the nineties, the LDS CEO of Times Mirror, Mark Willes, named himself publisher of the LA Times; he’s since retired and (maybe?) teaching at the BYU b-school. Willes’ tenure was controversial, primarily because newspaper folks objected both to his background as a bean-counter and to his controversial breach of the wall between business and editorial functions–but occasionally his affiliation with the church also came under fire. I grew up in his ward in LA, and once heard him agonize emotionally over the effect that his choices might have on public impressions of the church.

  6. Mark on December 31, 2004 at 2:25 pm

    Bro. Willes finished his tenure as mission president in Hawaii this past summer:
    http://marriottschool.byu.edu/marriottmag/summer01/features/willes1.cfm

  7. Ian R on December 31, 2004 at 5:40 pm

    “Obviously to retain the value which such a medium would have, it would be necessary [that] the interest of our people should not be known.”

    This is the line I find most interesting. The statement was made during, or shortly after the congressional investigation and hearings on Smoot being an Apostle, and Clark was extremely sensitive to public opinion and perception in DC of the Church.

    It makes me wonder in which other mediums the Church currently has a major stake hold? In today’s PR climate, is it still of importance that the general public not be privy of the Church’s interests? To what extent should leverage in the market place be wielded? And finally, is there any hope of the Church buying enough NFL franchises and media outlets to be able to move game day to Saturday, or Wed through Friday Nights? Super Bowl “Saturday� would be so much better.

  8. Adam Greenwood on December 31, 2004 at 5:53 pm

    Sure, and think of the great Superbowl ads. Instead of the Coors twins we could have the sister missionaries.

  9. Nate Oman on December 31, 2004 at 6:01 pm

    Jeremiah J.: I love the Post but let’s be honest here. The Style section generally blows. Worse, they have a medicore chess collumnist at best. (For what it is worth, if you want a good chess collumnist read Nigel Short in the London Daily Telegraph.) I agree with you that the Washington Times sucks. If you want a good example of a “conservative” newspaper, I would take the WSJ. And yes, I agree that the Post is frequently partisan. Predictably so. To its credit it hasn’t yet fallen to the NYT level of publishing editorials on the front page in the guise of news analysis.

    As for the plummeting stature of journalists, it is not something that I lose sleep or shed tears over. By and large, it seems to me that most journalists do not know what they are talking about. This is hardly their fault. They have deadlines and institutional constraints. They have my sympathy and appreciation. They also have my skepticism.

    And while we are bagging on journalists, I have to say that I find the televisionization of newspaper writing annoying in the extreme. I frequently cry out in frustration (my wife has gotten use to it) when I read news stories that begin with a five paragraph description of an image that is meant to capture the human drama of the story. If I wanted images capturing human drama I would watch CNN. I want what, when, who, where, why up front in my newspaper stories. I sometimes feel as though the “What’s News” section of the the WSJ is the last bastion of real newspaper writing.

  10. Kent Larsen on January 2, 2005 at 7:24 pm

    Wiles hardly retired. He was FIRED by the LA Times’ board. Yes it was called a ‘retirement,’ but he was in so much hot water that his position as publisher had become untenable.

    His story alwasy was quite odd — he was a businessman, not a journalist, and had come to the Times from a background in packaged goods — General Foods, if memory serves. His mistakes could be attributed to not really understanding journalism, but I suspect it is more likely that he was trying to change the way that journalism works, and simply failed.

    Kent Larsen

  11. David on January 3, 2005 at 12:25 pm

    Willes left in connection with the acquisition of Times Mirror (the holding company of which he was CEO, which owned the Los Angeles Times, of which, for a period of time, Willes had also served as publisher) by the Tribune Company, the holding company of the Chicago Tribune.

    This article suggests that the motivation for the sale was dissatisfaction of the owners of Times Mirror with Willes. http://www.mormonstoday.com/000319/B2Willes01.shtml (Kent, are you the Kent that maintained that website?) However, I think it is a simplification to call it a “firing” or “dismissal.” If it were a mere firing or dismissal, the Board or the owners could have hired another CEO to replace Willes.

    I think the owners of Times Mirror decided they could receive more value by selling the company than by continuing to have Willes (or any other person) as CEO.

  12. Glen on January 5, 2005 at 4:12 pm

    Bonneville Communications also owns Washington’s top radio news station (WTOP) and “Z104″ (WWZZ), with which I’m not familiar. I remember a bit of public discussion over Mormon ownership of WTOP when it was acquired back in 1997.