The Bushman Moment

June 14, 2007 | 23 comments
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Richard Bushman’s recent appearance at a Pew Forum conference on Mormonism and Democratic Politics has got me thinking about the role of scholars of Mormonism in shaping the religious news coverage swirling around Mitt Romney’s candidacy. I decided to do a little bit of informal content analysis of recent news stories, seeing which scholars are getting quoted. I picked Richard Bushman, Jan Shipps, Kathleen Flake, Armand Mauss, and D. Michael Quinn. Obviously, this choice is a bit random, but all five of these people are well-established scholars and between them I think that they have produced some of the most interesting stuff written on Mormonism in recent years. First, I searched all newspaper articles* for the last year. Here is what I found:

Bushman: 46 articles
Shipps: 26 articles
Quinn: 4 articles
Mauss: 4 articles
Flake: 4 articles

Then I figured that some of this coverage would go to Bushman because of RSR, so I did a search of articles mentioning the scholars and Mitt Romney. Here is what I found:

Bushman: 14 articles
Shipps: 8 articles
Mauss: 4 articles
Flake: 0 articles
Quinn: 0 articles

Then I thought it would be interesting to compare the appearance of the same 5 scholars in news stories that appeared in the last big burst of Mormon coverage: The 2002 Winter Olympics. So I searched newspaper articles published between June 2001 and June 2002, which I figured would capture a good chunk of both pre- and post-Olympic coverage. Here is what I found:

Shipps: 30 articles
Bushman: 18 articles
Flake: 15 articles
Quinn: 4 articles
Mauss: 0 articles

These numbers, however, massively overstate Bushman’s role in the Olympics coverage because the majority of those stories involved references to Bushman in non-Mormon contexts.

It wouldn’t do to make too much of these numbers. The database that I am searching is very large but by no means comprehensive. I’m sure that it missed a lot of stories. Still, I think that the switch between Shipps and Bushman with regard to the Olympics versus Romney coverage is interesting. Shipps clearly seems to have been the go-to scholar to explain Mormonism during the 2002 Olympics, but does not seem to occupy the same position in the Romney coverage. Rather, it seems that journalists are more likely to contact Bushman this time around if they are looking for a scholarly voice on things Mormon. (Assuming, of course, that these numbers mean anything at all.) In part, I suspect that the timing of the publication of RSR and Romney’s run was perfect for pushing Bushman’s name forward. I wonder, however, if there might also be another dynamic going on here. Shipps is a respected voice for journalists in large part, I suspect, because she is not Mormon, and hence journalists trust her to give them the strait scoop. I wonder if Bushman is trusted precisely because he is both Mormon and articulate and non-defensive. In other words, his authority comes from his insider status rather than his outsider status. If this is right, I think that it is a very encouraging sign. It suggests that people are interested in hearing Mormons tell their own story provided that they can do so in a frank and well-informed way.

*I did my searches in Westlaw’s ALLNEWS database. I don’t get paid for this, so I don’t vouch for the ultimate accuracy my numbers. They are presented as is, and I disclaim all implied warranties, including the warranty of merchantability. Available only while supplies last.

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23 Responses to The Bushman Moment

  1. Bob on June 14, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    All I know is Bushman did a hell of a good job on the interview, I expect him to be the go to guy for the press during Rommey’s Run.

  2. Kaimi Wenger on June 14, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    Interesting numbers, Nate.

    I wonder how Givens’ numbers stack up. A bit like Flake, maybe?

    Also, why are Flake’s numbers so high in 2002? That was _before_ her book.

  3. Matt W. on June 14, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    I’ll have to find a news database I have access to and repeat your experiment, if only to see how Terryl Givens makes out.

  4. Deep Sea on June 14, 2007 at 3:11 pm

    I suspect Givens will turn up with less frequency than Flake and the others mentioned. Both Bushman and Flake are not only LDS insiders but are also known and respected (ie insiders) within the academic study of religion, a community to which Givens is largely an outsider.

  5. Nate Oman on June 14, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    Terryl Givens is an obvious person to look at; I’m sorry that I missed him. Here are his recent numbers:

    12 articles total in the last year; 6 articles mentioning Mitt Romney

    There are 2 articles from June, 2001 to June, 2002 that cite Givens.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on June 14, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    Interesting exercise, Nate; I think your conclusions are quite plausible. But let’s not ignore the reality of path dependency here. It’s not just that Bushman published RSR; after all, others have published big and important books about Mormon figures and events as well. But Bushman was the one tapped by The New Republic to respond to Damon Linker’s cover story on Mitt Romney; and that, I suspect, is what first gave momentum to the association between Bushman and Romney which other journalists have followed, and which Bushman’s subsequent tremendous performances as a defender of the faith have simply added to.

  7. John Mansfield on June 14, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    Also factor in age. Shipps is around 78. She can’t keep up what she does forever as much as we may wish she could. Here‘s what she said about it last year:

    No doubt every scholar who continues his/her career long after retirement has a different reason for doing so. In my case, years of being the “Gentile” source, the so-called pre-eminent non-Mormon specialist on the Latter-day Saints, made giving up my work almost impossible. Why? That is easy. I refused to become a caricature of myself, responding to new questions about Mormonism with answers that I had given years ago when journalists, graduate students, and colleagues had asked me about the Saints.

  8. David on June 14, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    It is also interesting to note Sally Gordon’s recent appearance on the Daily Show. That, combined with her prominence on the PBS doc, may indicate that she’s at least taking some of Shipps’ “Gentile” source duties. We’ll see…

  9. John Taber on June 14, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    Bushman isn’t much younger, turning 76 this month.

  10. Kelvin Musanga on June 14, 2007 at 10:18 pm

    I read the whole deliberations of Bushman \’s points of view to which he did a great job. I think the church has come a long ways to get out of obscurity. I have seen it my few years i have been a member of the church.

  11. Seth R. on June 15, 2007 at 1:17 am

    One question is, Nate, if any MSM reporters actually take Bushman’s suggestion to check out T&S seriously and come nosing around for information, are you guys up to fielding the questions?

  12. Randy B. on June 15, 2007 at 8:15 am

    More importantly, when do I get to see Nate and Kaimi on the Daily Show!

  13. John G on June 15, 2007 at 11:24 am

    It appears to me that we are in the third phase of a triple play by journalists. The first phase was when journalists were only too pleased to publish lies and misinformation about the church and its members. The second was the period when they tried to feed their readers with information about the strange things Mormons believe and teach such as polygamy, secret temple rites, garments, and man-becoming-gods, etc. This phase climaxed with the easily remembered defamation, “Mormons aren’t Christians.” The third and present phase is in its infancy as some of the more respectible journalists seem to want to learn and even understand what we teach and believe although there is still a significant element of pseudo-fact that will no doubt be refreshed as the political campaign heats up as evidenced by the upcoming release of John Voight as a Mormon Bishop in “September Dawn,” Hollywoods “carefully researched” expose’ of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I thought Bushman did a good job at the Pew conference and the credentialed journalists talking with him seemed to be more sincere and genuinely interested.

  14. Thinker on June 15, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    Fantastic interview. Bushman always does a great job in these sorts of forums. I thought it was interesting that when Mormon Studies came up he forgot, errrr, neglected to mention that he’s actually one of the final candidates for the Chair at Claremont Graduate University. I also surprised there hasn’t been more coverage on this in the bloggernacle, since there’s no big secret about it, and the candidates all gave public lectures, but the final three were Richard Bushman, Kathleen Flake, and Grant Underwood. I have it on very good authority that they’re in negotiations right now and are hoping to announce within the next couple of weeks.

  15. Bob on June 15, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    Not to speak for Bushman, but at 76, I am sure he has many projects he would like to finish up, without taking on the Claremont Chair.

  16. Randy B. on June 15, 2007 at 11:33 pm

    Then why did he apply?

  17. Thinker on June 16, 2007 at 12:13 am

    Bob (re: #15): It is a little surprising, but all I can say is that I listened to him personally express his genuine passion, enthusiasm, and vision about the program when he visited and spoke at CGU. The story he tells is that while he was on some trip with Joseph Bentley, the chair of The Council for the Study of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that Bentley encouraged him to consider it, and the more he did, the more excited he got. Bushman’s age, and the fact that he’s been retired for about seven years, certainly complicates his candidacy, but I can assure you that he is definitely enthusiastic about the prospect of being the one to get that program off the ground. Whether or not he has been (or will be) selected is another matter entirely, but I’m just trying to give you a sense for the sort of impression he gave during his extended “job interview.”

  18. Bob on June 16, 2007 at 10:20 pm

    #16,#17: I then withdraw my unfounded statement and replace with..Go Bushman!

  19. mrs on June 18, 2007 at 12:16 pm

    Interestingly, Bushman is spending next academic year away from Columbia, at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, half an hour down the 210 from Claremont.

  20. John G on June 18, 2007 at 8:45 pm

    I don’t want to change the subject but … what is “The Council for the Study of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”

  21. Rob on July 5, 2007 at 5:51 pm

    Check out Bushman today on NPR..

  22. Ray on July 5, 2007 at 6:07 pm

    Thanks for the heads-up, Rob. Interesting interview.

  23. Dave G on August 13, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    I spoke with Bushman last week on the BYU campus during a book signing. He was enthusiastic about taking the position at Claremont, and since I myself am applying there for graduate school, was hopeful to \”see me again on campus.\” Of course, he, like the rest of us, is waiting on their announcement.

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