CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2005 International Conference
June 2-5, 2005 – Palermo, Sicily
Religious Movements, Globalization and Conflict: Transnational Perspectives

The Press in Utah: A Critical View

Will Bagley

A paper presented at the 2005 CESNUR Conference in Palermo, Sicily. Preliminary version – do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

Brigham Young, wrote a vengeful ex-wife, “loses his temper every morning over the Salt Lake Tribune,—the leading Gentile paper of Utah, — and longs for a return of the days when one word of his would have put a summary and permanent end to the existence of this sheet, by the utter annihilation of everything and everybody connected with it. But the time is forever past when the ‘unsheathing of his bowie-knife,’ or the ‘crooking of his little finger,’ pronounced sentence upon offenders, and the Gentile paper and its supporters flourish in spite of him.”[1]

Ann Eliza Young’s story was exaggerated, but it illustrates the controversies that have surrounded a free press in Utah since the territory’s first non-Mormon newspaper, The Valley Tan, appeared in November 1858. Brigham Young denounced it as a “miserable little sheet,” and the paper abruptly ceased publication on February 29, 1860 after publishing the first detailed account of the federal government’s investigation of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the mass murder by the “Nauvoo Legion,” the territorial militia, of some 120 men, women, and children in southern Utah. Ironically, these events and the struggle for an independent press in Mormon County would play out again at the turn of the twenty-first century—and that same contentious subject, the massacre at Mountain Meadows, helped persuade the LDS Church to use its considerable wealth and power to silence the newspaper Mormon leaders called “our enemy.” From its founding in 1871 until its purchase by media mogul Dean “Dinky” Singleton 131 years later in 2002, the Salt Lake Tribune was the “independent voice” of non-Mormons in the state of Utah. Singleton bought the paper with the help of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are popularly known as the Mormons or more formally as the LDS Church, after a complex and a series of fundamentally dishonest political and business machinations. The issues this story raises echo in contemporary American society, where conservative zealots strive to intimidate the media, put “God back in government,” and destroy the country’s separation of church and state.


Is it fair to characterize Utah Territory in the 1850s as a theocracy? Most outsiders, even ones who sympathized with the Mormons, certainly thought so: Among the Mormons, Asa C. Call wrote on his way to California in 1850, “the voice of Brigham is the voice God.”[2] “Brigham Young is their Governor of the Territory and President of the Church. He is also Prophet, Priest and King,” Dr. Samuel Matthias Ayres observed that same year. “They obey him implicitly.”[3] “While professing a complete divorce of church and state, their political character and administration is made subservient to the theocratical or religious element,” wrote Lt. John Gunnison after his winter with the Mormons in 1849. “They delight to call their system of government, a ‘Theo-Democracy;’ and that, in a civil capacity, they stand as the Israelites of old under Moses.” Gunnison hoped that education and American patience would persuade the Mormon people “to throw off the usurpations of a pretended Theocracy.”[4] But five years later, the president of the United States observed, “Brigham Young has been both governor and superintendent of Indian affairs. … He has been at the same time head of the church called the Latter-day Saints, and professes to govern its members by direct inspiration and authority from the Almighty. His power has been, therefore, absolute over both church and state.”[5] What did Utah’s first independent newspaper conclude? “Every day’s experience convinces us of the fact, that the Theocracy that controls this Territory, and consequently the people, is as distinct and in feeling as far separated from the Union, as the province of Canada, their official declarations to the contrary notwithstanding.”[6]

Mormon leaders at the time first boasted and then finessed the theocractic nature of the society they built in the Great Basin. “God and our country, now and for ever, one and inseparable!” proclaimed Apostle Orson Hyde in 1854 on the Fourth of July.[7] Brigham Young believed that “The Constitution and laws of the United States resemble a theocracy more closely than any government now on the earth, or that ever has been, so far as we know, except the government of the children of Israel to the time when they elected a king. . . . What do I understand by a theocratic government?” he asked. “One in which all laws are enacted and executed in righteousness, and whose officers possess that power which proceedeth from the Almighty. That is the kind of government I allude to when I speak of a theocratic government, or the kingdom of God upon the earth. It is, in short, the eternal powers of the Gods,” Young proclaimed in July 1859, in the midst of the church’s battle with the territory’s first independent newspaper.[8] In the wake of his confrontation with the U.S. government in 1857, prophet hedged the question of whether the Kingdom of God was established on earth with conditional “whens” and “ifs,” but his earlier statements and his fellow authorities were not ambiguous. “The Lord God Almighty has set up a kingdom that will sway the sceptre of power and authority over all the kingdoms of the world, and will never be destroyed,” he said in 1852. “.  . . It may be considered treason to say that the kingdom which that Prophet foretold is actually set up; that we cannot help, but we know it is so, and call upon the nations to believe our testimony. The kingdom will continue to increase, to grow, to spread and prosper more and more.”[9] Young’s vision was expansive: “We will roll on the Kingdom of our God, gather out the seed of Abraham, build the cities and temples of Zion, and establish the Kingdom of God to bear rule over all the earth.”[10]

After the confrontation between the American Republic and Mormon theocracy known as the Utah War, Apostle Orson Pratt commented “upon the subject of a theocratical form of government, or upon that particular form of government called the kingdom of God.” He argued that “Human wisdom in religious or governmental affairs is the great source of disunion and all its attendant train of evil.” Pratt held that “disunion” had caused the Pilgrim Fathers to come to America, where “They established morality and many good institutions, although their laws in many respects were very oppressive. . . . But among all these pilgrims there could not be found a theocratical form of government.” Then Pratt proclaimed, “The kingdom of God is here. Is it a theocracy? Yes, so far as ecclesiastical law is concerned. Is there anything in the Constitution of this Government that prevents us from establishing any kind of laws that we please to govern us ecclesiastically, so long as we do not infringe upon the laws of the United States, or go against any of the rights guaranteed in the American Constitution? No.”[11]

Earlier, before there was an independent newspaper in Utah, Young’s second-in-command, Heber C. Kimball, described the fate of prostitutes under Utah’s theocratic law: Mormon women, he said, “are like all other women, I suppose; but they are not unclean, for we wipe all unclean ones from our midst: we not only wipe them from our streets, but we wipe them out of existence. And if the world want to practise [sic] uncleanness, and bring their prostitutes here, if they do not repent and forsake such sins, we will wipe the evil out. We will not have them in this valley, unless they repent; for, so help me God, while I live, I will lend my hand to wipe such persons out; and I know this people will.”[12]

Finally, as David L. Bigler has shown, the lack of a secret ballot, elections held without a single dissenting vote, and Mormon attempts to establish their political independence are all hallmarks of this remarkable frontier theocracy.[13]

Valley Tan

On November 6, 1858, Kirk Anderson, formerly of the Missouri Republican, announced that he had embarked on publishing a newspaper in Salt Lake Valley “because we believe the interests and wants of a large portion of the people of the Territory, required an exponent differing essentially from any hitherto published in their midst.” (Only one newspaper, the Mormon church’s Deseret News, had ever appeared in Utah, so it was clear what Anderson meant by “any.”) Circumstances cried out for “a newspaper in its true significance … local in its nature catching the current of events upon its mirror and reflecting them back to the people.” The new editor proudly dubbed the publication Kirk Anderson’s Valley Tan after himself and what Mark Twain called “the exclusively Mormon refresher .  . . a kind of whisky, or first cousin to it” that tradition said was made exclusively in Utah of “(imported) fire and brimstone.”[14] A famous English traveler later repeated the paper’s own explanation of its strange name: “Tannery was the first technological process introduced into the Mormon Valley,” wrote Richard Burton; “hence all home industry has obtained the sobriquet of ‘Valley Tan.’”[15] Burton said the most famous example was the “generally pure” local whiskey that was “better than the alcohol one part and water one part, colored with burnt sugar and flavored with green tea, which is sold under the name of Cognac.”[16] The newspaper itself said the phrase strictly meant “home manufacture” and had “become an indispensable word in our Utah vernacular.”[17]

“We did not come here to make war upon ‘this people,’” Anderson wrote, speaking to the vast majority of Utah’s Mormon population, “but it is our intention so far as our efforts and abilities can extend, to aid in correcting abuses and errors, particularly those relating to the administration of public affairs.” Anderson admitted he wanted to break through the “exclusiveness which has so peculiarly surrounded the people of this Territory” with “a more free and candid interchange of sentiment.” He pointed out that any interference “by Legislation or otherwise” would violate “individual and constitutional rights,” that overland emigrants should be welcomed with a spirit of friendship and not “with barricades and bloody hands,” and promised he would address “questions peculiar to ‘this people’” fearlessly and fairly.[18] But whatever kind sentiments he expressed on the inside pages of his newspaper, Anderson inaugurated The Valley Tan’s front page with an article on “Polygamy in Utah” in which a U.S. Army officer denounced “Pagan abuses in the Territories.” The war between The Valley Tan and Mormon theocracy had begun.

“We had the pleasure of meeting yesterday Judge Cradlebaugh, of the second judicial district court of the United States, in this Territory,” the initial issue also announced, noting that the judge had made a “seven weeks tour upon the plains,” a hard trip that left his hands frostbitten. “Judge C.,” the paper announced, “will enter upon the official discharge of his duties as soon as possible.”[19] Although the Mormons initially found Cradlebaugh refreshing and full of pluck, they soon learned that the judge’s duties included investigating the Mountain Meadows massacre, which provided hot copy for the pages of The Valley Tan and turned the one-eyed judge into an implacable enemy of their “theo-democracy.”[20]

“Who did this damnable deed—the Indians? A strong suspicion rests upon the popular mind that white men, or at least those who claim to be white, were interested in it, and if not actually participants, encouraged the massacre,” Anderson wrote in mid-February 1859. “This wholesale murder must come to light, and we are glad to see that the Federal officers are moving in the matter, and that there is at least some probability that the parties, whether Indians or their adjuncts, Mormons, will be brought to justice.”[21] The next month, the paper praised Judge Cradlebaugh “and his energetic movements,” which showed “a determination to rip open hidden crimes that have slumbered for years.” It asked why so many highly placed Mormons had fled and were “so repugnant to testify, when the bones of murdered men, women, and children at the Mountain Meadows bleach the Valley, and their flesh fattened the wolves? If it was the Indians, as has been confidently asserted, or any body else, Mormon, Jew, or Gentile, humanity and justice demands the utmost rigors of the law that justice can administer.”[22] When Cradlebaugh discharged the grand jury he had called to investigate the atrocity and other murders that Mormon officials had long ignored, he raised a question that the religion’s historians are still hard-pressed to answer honestly: why did Brigham Young do nothing but offer excuses for the crime and fail to undertake the most minimal investigation? The judge’s answer was direct: “The very fact that such an affair as the Mountain Meadows massacre should so long have been left uninvestigated, allows that there is some person high in the estimation of the people, by whose authority crime is committed.”[23]

After only six months at the helm, Anderson left the paper to its owner, Territorial Sec. of State John Hartnett, for “personal and private” reasons in May 1859, just as the rescue of orphans of the massacre and federal investigations of the crime had created a crisis in Utah, a “powder keg that only needed a spark,” one Mormon historian concluded, to break into armed violence.[24] Anderson said in his farewell that Cradlebaugh’s effort to prosecute murderers and massacres had “caused all Mormondom to howl in its dark and secret recesses; and every expedient has been employed in resisting his efforts to protect society against organized assassins.” He charged “the whole Mormon church is acting as an accessory after the fact to conceal them and prevent their arrest, if necessary, by force.”[25]

The Valley Tan ran through several editors, including Hartnett, Thomas Adams, and H. N. Maguire, before Stephen DeWolfe, the acting U.S. attorney in Utah, took over the position in October. In the interim, the paper had told of the rescue and return of the Mountain Meadows orphans, but it backed off from reporting inflammatory details about the massacre. Utah had been wracked by a wave of violence that included the murder in broad daylight of a U.S. Army sergeant in downtown Salt Lake and the dispatching of a number of desperadoes, which led to suspicion that a band of Mormon assassins was at work in the city. DeWolfe acknowledged the widespread opinion that The Valley Tan had “been conducted as an organ of a small number of Federal office-holders in this Territory, and that it has never been a fearless and outspoken sheet, but on the contrary, cramped and trammeled in its tone, to suit the purposes of a few individuals, rather than to reflect truly and faithfully the existing state of things in this Territory.” He promised “to denounce whatever is vicious, corrupting, and degrading, no matter on what pretenses sustained, or by whom, or how extensively practiced,” and over the paper’s last four months, he was as good as his word.[26] “No man’s life is secure as long as the scenes of violence and bloodshed which have been of such frequent occurrence among us for months past continue to be repeated, and the perpetrators escape punishment, or are not detected,” he argued.[27]

Having addressed the LDS church’s economic exploitation of its members in a February 8 on “The Exactions of Mormonism,” DeWolfe returned to the subject of Mountain Meadows the reprinted “Law in Utah,” an article from the New York Times that claimed the Secretary of the Interior had evidence sufficient to convict massacre-participant John D. Lee “of having violated and murdered a young girl, a survivor of the party of emigrants massacred at Mountain Meadows.” The Times charged Mormon authorities had refused “to surrender this scoundrel for trial, unless he is to be tried before a Mormon jury,” which would let him go scot free since “no Mormon jury has ever yet convicted any Mormon of any outrage on a Gentile.”[28] DeWolfe editorialized that if the writer were in Utah, he would “have to answer for his temerity in thus venturing to express his opinion upon a matter concerning a people whose acts and crimes are not to be made a subject of newspaper comment or criticism.”[29] He kept up the drumbeat when the next week when he printed a letter from Judge Cradlebaugh charging that Mormon leaders taught “the doctrine that it is right and godly that Mormons should rob Gentiles whenever they can do so with facility and escape public exposure. The Mountain Medows [sic] Massacre is a melancholy proof of this fact.”[30]

DeWolfe was struggling to find enough newsprint to keep his press operating, and on Wednesday, 29 February 1860, he announced “we shall be compelled for want of paper on which to publish it, to suspend publication for some weeks to come.” Remarkably, the Deseret News had provided paper for the Tan’s last issues, but at the same time, church officials had ordered George Hales, the print shop foreman, to quit “or to be cut off from the fellowship of his associates in the church.”[31] The Valley Tan, however, went out with a bang: the front-page article was titled “The Origins of the Mormon Imposture,” but the truly explosive material was on page three in Deputy U.S. Marshall William Rogers’ statement on the “principal and most important facts obtained in relation to this noted massacre” during the federal investigation in southern Utah in April and May 1859.[32] DeWolf had hoped that paper would arrive from California and the newspaper’s closure would be temporary, but these articles helped ensure that The Valley Tan had printed its last issue.[33]

The Resurgent Theocracy

The demise of Salt Lake’s second newspaper and the subsequent—and more important—withdrawal of federal troops in 1861 witnessed the rebirth of theocracy in the Great Basin and the establishment in 1862 of what historian Dale L. Morgan called “The Ghost Government of Deseret.”[34] Creating a parallel set of offices, Brigham Young acted as governor and the elected members of the territory’s Legislative Assembly met as the legislature of the “state of Deseret.” Both bodies published only Brigham Young’s gubernatorial message, which did not include the prophet’s private remarks. “We are Called the State Legislature but when the time Comes we shall be Called the kingdom of God,” he said. “This body of men will give laws to the Nations of the Earth.” In contradiction to his publicly expressed support of the Union, he privately told Deseret’s legislators, “Our Government is going to peaces [sic] and it will be like water that is spilt upon the ground that Cannot be gathered.”[35] The American nation, he predicted, “will be broken in pieces like a potter’s vessel; yes, worse, they will be ground to powder.”[36]

The collapse of federal power in Utah prompted a series of brutal crimes, ranging from the beating and castration of territorial governor John Dawson (a letter from Apostle George Q. Cannon confirms that Dawson “had been half emasculated”) to the government-sanctioned murder of Joseph Morris, a prophetic competitor to Brigham Yong, and several followers.[37] This reign of theocratic terror subsided with the arrival of federal troops in 1862 and the launching in November 1863 of a new newspaper, The Union Vedette, at Camp Douglas, which on January 27, 1864 became the Daily Union Vedette, Utah’s first daily newspaper. It continued publication until November 1867, four years and one week after it began.[38]

The Incendiary Tribune

No independent newspaper appeared in Utah for the next three years, but in 1870, dissident Mormon businessmen launched the Mormon Tribune explicitly to “oppose the undue exercise of priestly authority” and Brigham Young’s domination of Utah’s economy.[39] These Mormons thought the prophet’s fiscal policies, such as slashing working people’s wages from $4 to $1 a day, fighting public education, and stoutly obstructing justice were not inspired. The dissenters had earlier called for “mineral development, of the honest, hard-working kind,”  and Young denounced this “great and secret rebellion.” Apostle George Q. Cannon held a public church trial of the men in October 1869 at City Hall. The dissidents refused to acknowledge that “President Young has the right to dictate to you in all things, temporal and spiritual,” and the Salt Lake Stake High Council handed the dissenters over to “the buffetings of Satan.” The Mormon dissidents sold the newspaper in 1871, and on April 15 it became Salt Lake Daily Tribune and Utah Mining Gazette.

The struggling newspaper was sold to three Kansans who the Mormons characterized as “the border ruffians,” and Union army veteran Frederic Lockley became editor of the Tribune. Shortly after Lockley’s arrival, Patrick Lannan, unofficial leader of Salt Lake’s non-Mormon or “gentile” community, warned him, “if you propose to publish a free, outspoken newspaper here, and retain standing ground, you’ll have a steady fight on your hands.” That is exactly what Lockley intended, and fight he did, attacking the civic corruption he found in Salt Lake City’s municipal government and rising to national fame during the trials of John D. Lee for telling “the terrible story of blood and plunder at Mountain Meadows.” Lockley was fond of headlines such as “The Prophet on His Haunches,” “Is Brigham Young Insane?” “Bamboozling the Heathen,” and he dubbed Salt Lake’s powerful mayor, Daniel H. Wells, “The One-Eyed Pirate of the Wasatch.” Under Lockley, the Tribune prided itself on its “fearlessness in behalf of the priest-ridden people of Utah,” and the paper began a twenty-year campaign that ultimately destroyed the dominant power of theocracy in Utah.[40]

Most newspaper wars are verbal and metaphorical, but in nineteenth-century Utah these wars entailed violence and bloodshed. John C. Young, a nephew of the Mormon prophet, covered the second Mountain Meadows massacre trial of John D. Lee for the Tribune and wrote “Ginx’s Letters,” a “pungent” weekly column. Lockley called the alert and keen-witted young man the Tribune’s “most useful writer” and encouraged him to report information that was “damaging and vexatious to the Latter-day dispensation.” One night the reporter stayed late at Lockley’s hotel. “Invariably he carried his weapon in his hand when he went home at night,” Lockley recalled, “but on this occasion it remained in his pocket.” Outside two men jumped Young, struck him in the face and disappeared into the shadows. Rushing from the hotel, Lockley found the reporter “leaning against the wall and blood flowing profusely from his face.” The “cowardly assailants” escaped, but Lockley held Deseret News vice-president Angus Cannon responsible for the crime. Cannon had been lurking nearby, and one of his sons later showed off a silver-mounted pistol he boasted “had been used upon the Tribune reporter’s visage.” After New York Herald reporter Jerome Stillson’s “terrible disclosures” appeared in the “incendiary” Tribune, a stranger knocked on his door at a Salt Lake hotel and handed him a piece of paper. As Stillson read, “Take that, you handsome son-of-a-bitch,” the man stabbed him. Only a stout suspender buckle saved the reporter’s life.[41] Tribune editor Frederic Lockley himself had “so many threats through his barrage of attacks against polygamy and Mormon Church authority that he came to fear walking the boardwalks of Salt Lake City. Lockley’s concern for his safety was borne out in 1878 when he was jumped by a mob as he tried to leave his office,” observed historian Ken Verdoia. “With his attackers using brass knuckles, Lockley was beaten senseless.”[42]

Even after the abandonment of theocracy that led to statehood for Utah, newspaper wars raged in Zion. Senator Thomas Kearns purchased the Tribune shortly after his election in 1900: the Tribune has charged Kearns was elected as part of a secret deal with the LDS church, which had tacitly agreed to the election of one non-Mormon senator as the price of statehood. Forsaking the arrangement, the church refused to back Kearns for re-election, preferring to install one of its apostles in the office. A “church monarchy,” Kearns charged in his last speech to the Senate, “rules all politics in Utah.” Upon returning home, he launched the American Party and battled church interference in politics for half a decade. “Until there is a complete separation of church and state, the Tribune will not pass into the hands of any man or number of men who are not committed to the cause which this newspaper has so long espoused,” he promised.[43]

Kearns arranged a cease-fire with the LDS church in 1911. (As part of the accommodation, the Trib burned a warehouse full of Mormon apostate Josiah Gibbs’ book, Lights and Shadows of Mormonism.) When asked why he had made peace, Kearns called for his paper’s account books and said, “Show them to my young friend here.” But Kearns also saw that the Tribune could do more good for Salt Lake and Utah by ending a destructive newspaper war that had no winners.[44] For most of the rest of the twentieth century, the Tribune and managers such as John Fitzpatrick and John W. Gallivan would be a crucial in maintaining the accommodation that existed between Salt Lake’s Mormon and non-Mormon communities, and while always respectful of the LDS church and its interests, the newspaper truly remained an “independent voice.”

Ironically, the Tribune was also responsible for the financial salvation of the Deseret News after a brutal circulation war ended in disaster for the Mormon paper in the early 1950s. LDS church president David O. McKay visited his ailing friend and Tribune publisher John Fitzpatrick in the hospital to acknowledge that the News would go out of business unless the Tribune took over management of its business affairs. To this end, Jack Gallivan crafted a joint operating agreement that ensured the continuing survival of the News as an afternoon paper. Without the agreement, observes Gallivan, the adopted son of Senator Kearns’s widow, “the Deseret News would have gone down the drain.”[45]

“To Have Our Enemy”: The Tangled Web of a Modern Newspaper War

Despite a very favorable business arrangement, keeping the Deseret News alive proved an expensive proposition, especially as the subscriber base for all newspapers, and afternoon newspapers in particular, eroded during the late 20th century. The LDS church has kept ownership and control of the paper, but it has tried to build the credibility of the Deseret News by removing church authorities like Thomas L. Monson, the presumed successor to the presidency of the church, from its board and hiring a non-Mormon editor. This was simply cosmetic, however, akin to putting lipstick on a pig: the paper’s management policies reveal that independence is not in the paper’s charter. “Staff members should assume both responsibility and accountability to defend principles espoused by the owner whenever competing loyalties arise,” Glen Snarr dictated to the paper’s employees just before replacing Monson as chairman of the board. A few months later, Snarr told the board: “The News should not initiate stories that may be offensive to the owners.”[46] In Utah, the church’s tight rein on the paper is no secret, and as subscription numbers for more than a hundred years indicate, even Mormons trust the Tribune more than they do the “church organ.” “The Tribune outstrips the News’s circulation roughly two to one, attracting a readership that is roughly 50 percent Mormon,” reported the Columbia Journalism Review. “A 2002 poll by Brigham Young University found that 70 percent of Utah voters thought the Deseret News slanted its coverage to favor the church.”[47]

A gradual crumbling of the long-standing peace in Utah accelerated in the 1990s as the church grew in size and respectability and increasingly believed its own publicity, while the Tribune’s coverage of its affairs became more critical. As one journalist observed, the Tribune aggressively reported “on the political favors that benefited the church, on the ties between the Mormon church and the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee, and the church’s controversial conversion of a piece of Main Street into a religious park.”[48]

The situation grew more complicated when the Kearns family transferred its ownership of the Tribune and its investments in a complicated tax-free business deal with cable giant to Tele-Communications Inc. in 1997 for roughly $731 million in stock. The deal was crafted to transfer the family’s cable assets to TCI and avoid paying a substantial amount of taxes, while allowing the Kearns family to continue to manage the Tribune and buy the paper back in 2002.

So began a convoluted plot peopled with characters named Hindery, Welch, Gomm, Poelman, Hatch, and Snarr. Ignoring the Tribune’s ownership agreement, TCI president Leo Hindery began trying to sell the Tribune to the Deseret News almost immediately. “It was Leo Hindery who first came to us with a proposal to purchase The Tribune. We did not go to him,” the LDS First Presidency later wrote to former Tribune publisher Jack Gallivan.[49] The effort accelerated when AT&T acquired TCI in 1998 and Hindery became a Kearns-Tribune director. “There have recently been serious threats to AT&T’s political interests in the state related to our ownership of The Salt Lake Tribune,” Hindery wrote. He wanted to sell the Tribune for ”the good will we will have preserved with the Mormon Church and the political leadership of the State.” Hindery “knew his audience well”: he told Mormon officials “he had nearly joined the LDS Church years earlier when he coached church basketball” and at church headquarters in December 1998, Hindery offered to sell the Tribune for $175 million.[50]

By October 1999, the News and AT&T were close to a deal and had “actually reached a verbal agreement with the church to have it take over the joint-operating company.”[51] Deseret News executives discussed how to “spin” the takeover. “We can expect to see such headlines as ‘Mormon Church Seeks To Purchase Salt Lake Tribune,” one warned. “We should attempt to remove this as far as possible from the Church.” In the meantime, Deseret News editor John Hughes proposed to combine both newspapers as the “News-Tribune,” retaining the “useful” Tribune staffers but firing the paper’s most popular writer, humor columnist Robert Kirby because, Hughes said, “His Johnny-one-note stuff is Mormon-bashing.”[52]

Deseret News consultant Gary Gomm and the paper’s attorney, Lloyd Poelman. met with Sen. Orrin Hatch and Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and briefed them on what the News saw the benefits of the pending deal. A draft copy of that briefing argued that McCarthey family control of the Tribune would ensure the “ultimate demise” of the News, but if the News bought it paper, it would “preserve, as long as economies allow, the independent expression of editorial and newsroom policies of The Salt Lake Tribune.”[53] Senator Hatch, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that handled mergers and other issues involving AT&T, “made at least one phone call in mid-1999 to AT&T to say he had no objections to the Deseret News obtaining controlling interest in the two papers’ joint-operating company,” reported the Wall Street Journal. “Some people came to me and said: ‘Since AT&T doesn’t understand the newspaper business, would you tell them you have no objection to the Deseret News doing this,’“ the senator told the Tribune. “In this case,” he said lamely, “I probably shouldn’t have done it.”[54]

The deal collapsed after AT&T forced Hindery to resign. Poelman and the News threatened to sue AT&T for $142 million over the failed sale, and an anonymous AT&T memo brutally summed up the dispute: “Family wants to buy assets back..... Church will not consent because it hates family.”[55] Days after the Deseret News failed  to takeover The Salt Lake Tribune in October 1999, the News’ chairman of the board, Glen Snarr, stayed up much of the night praying. He had a revelation: rather than have the LDS church take over The Tribune directly, it would be better to have a sympathetic third-party control Utah’s oldest non-Mormon newspaper. By abandoning its attempt to buy The Tribune, “We would not own a newspaper that would continue its war of hate against us under our ownership,” Snarr told President Thomas S. Monson, the second most powerful authority in the church’s hierarchy. “It is more palatable to have our enemy owned elsewhere.”

Just as the Valley Tan’s determined reporting on the atrocity contributed to its demise, the determination of LDS church officials to silence the Tribune was galvanized in March 2000 when the paper ran a three-part series about the church’s attempts to “heal” the wounds of Mountain Meadows, “a frontier massacre that may have been ordered by Brigham Young,… The paper infuriated church leaders.”[56] Utah political and religious leaders found the second installment, “Voices from the Dust,” especially aggravating, mainly for its description of the machinations provoked by the discovery of the remains of twenty-eight victims that a back-ho turned up while digging foundations for an LDS church-owned monument at the massacre site. Despite an investigation by archeologists from BYU, the church’s private university, the remains had been found in close association with a monument the army raised over the grave in 1859, which Brigham Young had torn down in 1861. Lacking anyone with competence in forensic anthropology, the university called on Dr. Shannon Novak of the University of Utah to examine the remains.

Not until March 12, 2000, when the Salt Lake Tribune began a three-part series, did the public learn of Novak’s startling findings. The 37-year-old anthropologist discovered evidence that some Arkansas emigrants had been shot at close range in the face and forehead, counter to folklore that they were shot in the back of the head; and children as young as five had been killed, not rescued by sympathetic Mormons. The Tribune series also disclosed that Mormon Church leadership and Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt had prevented Novak from making any other further revelations by cutting short her probe and reburying the bones, along with the remains of the other hundred or so Arkansas pioneers, in a remote spot in southeastern Utah.[57]

President Gordon B. Hinckley quickly called Tribune publisher Dominic Welch to a “cordial” meeting where he and his counselors “expressed dismay at a recent Tribune series that delved into the Mountain Meadows Massacre” and complained about a 1998 series on polygamy and a 1991 article about the Mormon practice of baptizing famous dead people, including William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, and Adolf Hitler. “They don’t like us to bring up old history,” Welch said, and in early 2000 “the church publicly slammed the Tribune for an article accusing the church of misleading people about its intentions for a parcel of downtown Salt Lake City real estate.”[58]

Mormon interests found their stalking horse when ATT&T officials put them in touch with Denver-based media mogul William Dean Singleton and his MediaNews Group, who assured Chairman Snarr the corporation “does not allow its papers to disparage anyone or organization on religious, racial or ethical grounds.”[59] Snarr assured the first presidency that Singleton would “sign an agreement outlining nearly everything we want.” While it was negotiating the sale of the paper to the McCarthey family in December 2000, AT&T secretly sold the Tribune to “the church’s chosen buyer,” MediaNews, for $200 million. When the Kearns-McCarthey management agreement expired in July 2002, a federal court rejected the family’s appeal to keep control of the Tribune, and Singleton and MediaNews took over the paper on August 1.[60]

The day before the takeover, Singleton met with the Tribune staff and said he would not tolerate any more “Mormon bashing.” When a brave reporter asked for an example of such behavior, a flustered Singleton recalled the Sunday edition and “lambasted an editorial cartoon by the Tribune’s Pat Bagley that lampooned — in typical Tribune fashion — Deseret News readers.” The cartoon showed a non-Mormon spitting out coffee while reading the “new” morning Deseret News, evoking the Mormon prohibition of hot drinks. “You won’t see cartoons like yesterday’s,” Singleton said. “We will treat our partners with respect.” When Singleton finished speaking, Tribune editor Jay Shelledy, who had “long needled the church with critical stories,” but whom Media-News had kept to allay the suspicions that Salt Lake now had two “church organs,” quickly pulled the new publisher into his office and said, “Lesson number one: Pat Bagley is sacred.” Bagley, “whose biting wit often ruffles the feathers of church leaders,” wondered if his job was at risk. “So I asked him to clarify,” Bagley said. “And he did a hundred-eighty-degree turn. I have free rein as long as I stay away from the lawsuit.”[61] The next day, Singleton praised the immensely popular cartoonist on a church-owned radio station as “a community treasure.”

The ultimate fate of the Tribune is now in the hands of the courts, but the results of its new management are apparent for all to see. As a Southern Baptist and friend of George W. Bush, Singleton made some surprising changes in the Tribune, such as giving out nearly $200,000 in raises and supporting a more liberal editorial page. Singleton’s paper has yet to publish a single article that raises the ire of Salt Lake’s Mormon community, but unlike every issue of the paper for a century, it did not run stories about the LDS church’s semi-annual conference on its front page, which was dominated by coverage of the death of John Paul II,  and relegated coverage to “below the fold” in the local section. But Singleton has brought in a new management team who have not the slightest understanding or even apparent interest in Utah’s complicated local culture, and they have trivialized national news and decreased community coverage while increasing the number of crime stories. Singleton’s managers have created a paper that swings between the sensational and the sanctimonious.

Late in May 2005, the Tribune published yet another article about the LDS church’s failure to reveal its development plans for downtown Salt Lake City, where it has owns vast amounts of commercial property. The article quoted Salt Lake Mayor Ross “Rocky” Anderson saying that he “would like the church to seek public input” about its plans and his complaint that “We’re still hearing, ‘We got to keep it close to the vest.’ We’ve been hearing that for how many months now?” A local politician characterized Anderson’s statement as throwing “‘hand grenades’ at the church,” a sentiment echoed in the Tribune headline: “Groans greet Rocky’s mall jabs: …. mayor just snipes at LDS Church.” The partisan and inaccurate headline seemed oddly out of place in a newspaper that still touts itself as “Utah’s Independent Voice Since 1871,” but odder still was the apology the paper issued the next day: “The headline on the story about [Mayor] Anderson and the downtown renovation forum in Wednesday’s edition was inappropriate. The Tribune strives to be objective and respectful in reporting and headlines and apologizes for the choice of words.”[62]

Authoritarian governments like Fidel Castro’s Cuba, which tightly controls its official press and even limits the access of its citizens to foreign publications, have little use for a free press, and theocracies have even less regard for free-ranging journalism. The reaction of theocratic Utah finds echoes in today’s world: Saudi Arabia, the world’s most successful theocracy, “allowed journalists to address such taboo topics as religious militancy, government mismanagement, and terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001,” and eased press restrictions “for short periods but then cracked down.”[63] Although Iranian reformists Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former journalist, loosened press restrictions while in power, to this day “there is no real freedom of the press” in Iran, as media expert Zhayla Bani Yaghoub recently observed—and Mahmood Ahmadinejad, the newly elected president, has expressed his desire to control not only the press but the explosion of new media sweeping his country. “I have the address and phone numbers of those who have slandered me [in text messages], he told Iranian newspapers, and the nation’s theocratic judiciary “has now threatened to prosecute people who send text messages with the aim of  ‘denigrating’ candidates.”[64]

A final question: is it fair to characterize modern Utah as a theocracy?  As journalist Michael Scherer concluded, Utah “still functions as a quasi-theocracy. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints [sic] still dominates politics, local media, and culture. It claims membership of roughly two-thirds of the state’s residents and annual revenues that have been estimated at $6 billion. It is Utah’s largest employer and Salt Lake City’s largest landowner. Roughly 90 percent of the state legislature is Mormon, as are the governor, the House and Senate delegations, and a majority of the state’s supreme court and federal judiciary.”[65] As Lucinda Fleeson observed in the American Journalism Review, “In many respects, the Latter-day Saint establishment has never been more powerful—international church membership stands at more than 11 million, double the number in 1983.” A veteran Salt Lake City journalist saw evidence of a new aggressiveness by the Church hierarchy. “They’re feeling their oats right now,” said Salt Lake City Weekly editor Christopher Smart, “feeling that this is their time.”[66]

When the LDS church uses its political and economic power to suppress and destroy the independence of the state’s most influential newspaper, it seems to have learned nothing from its contentious political past, but in comparison to the situation in the 1860, the LDS church wields nothing like the power it once did, and a respect for American law and democratic institutions tempers its still-enormous political influence. Nonetheless, as increasingly arrogant Republican lawmakers flout their religious loyalties, disenfranchise the political minority with outrageous gerrymandering, and attack the basic rights of minorities with homophobic and unconstitutional crusades, they appear to still believe that the Kingdom of God is operational. Utah may no longer being a full-service theocracy, but as the Salt Lake Tribune sings the praises of its new partner, let us call Utah’s government what it is: a “theo-democracy.”

John Hughes, the first allegedly non-Mormon editor of the Deseret News, has tried to drop  “Deseret” from its name. Should the News ever acquire the Tribune, it is likely only a single morning newspaper would survive. Maybe its new owners could call it The Mormon Tribune.

Will Bagley is an independent historian who wrote a Sunday column for The Salt Lake Tribune from 2000 to 2004. He wishes to thank Mario S. DePillis for his insightful comments on this paper.

[1] Ann Eliza Young, Wife No. 19, or the Story of a Life in Bondage (Hartford, Conn.: Dustin, Gilman & Co., 1875).

[2] Call, “From Utah. Great Salt Lake City, Sept. 20, 1850.” The National Era 5:212 (23 January 1851) Washington, D.C., 13.

[3] Ayres to My dear girl, 27 July 1850, Typescript, Western Historical Manuscript Collection.

[4] Gunnison, The Mormons, or Latter-day Saints, in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, 23, Chapter 8.

[5] James Buchanan, Annual Message to Congress, 1857.

[6] The Valley Tan, 29 March 1859, 2:1.

[7] Orson Hyde, “Celebration of the Fourth of July,” 4 July 1854, Journal of Discourses, 6:371.

[9] Brigham Young, “A Discourse Delivered by President Brigham Young at the Opening of the New Tabernacle,” 6 April 1852, Journal of Discourses, 1:198.

[10] Brigham Young, 8 July 1855, Journal of Discourses, 2:317.

[11] “Theocracy,” Orson Pratt, 14 August 1859, Journal of Discourses, 210, 214, 224. Pratt conceded, “Do we hold ourselves subject to the civil laws? Yes. God, notwithstanding he has given us Church laws, has not freed us from the authority of the civil law.” Ibid., 224.

[12] Kimball, “Sanctification,” 16 July 1854, Journal of Discourses, 7:19. Evidence suggests Mormons actually carried out Kimball’s Taliban-like policies. Tracy, etc.

[13] Bigler, Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847–1896. Spokane, Wash: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1998.

[14] Twain, Roughing It, (Hartford, Conn: American Publishing Company, 1872), Chapter 13.

[15] Burton, The City of the Saints, 170.

[16] Burton, The City of the Saints, 320.

[17] “Our Christening—Valley Tan,” The Valley Tan, 6 November 1858, 2/1.

[18] The Valley Tan, 6 November 1858, 2/1.

[19] “Personal,” The Valley Tan, 6 November 1858, 2/4.

[20] Donald R. Moorman and Gene A. Sessions, Camp Floyd and the Mormons: The Utah War (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992), 106–07; and “The Democracy and Mormon Eniquity,” San Francisco Evening Bulletin, 17 June 1859, 2/2.

[21] The Valley Tan, 15 February 1859, 2:1.

[22] The Valley Tan, 29 March 1859, 2/2.

[23] “Discharge of the Grand Jury,” The Valley Tan, 5 April 1859, 2/5–3/1.

[24] The Valley Tan, 17 May 1859, 2/1; and Ronald O. Barney, One Side by Himself: the Life and Times of Louis Barney, 1808–1894 (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2001), 176–77.

[26] The Valley Tan, 19 October 1859, 2/1.

[27] “Another Murder,” The Valley Tan, 19 October 1859, 2/2–3.

[28] “Law in Utah,” The Valley Tan, 15 February 1860, 2/5 from the New York Times, 7 January 1860.

[29] “The New York Times on Mormonism,” The Valley Tan, 15 February 1860, 2/1.

[30] “Utah Affairs,” The Valley Tan, 22 February 1860, 2/3.

[31] The Valley Tan, 29 February 1860, 2/1.

[33] For an example of the dismal level of Mormon scholarship on this subject, see Robert Fleming’s  partisan exercise, “Turning the Tide: The Mountaineer vs. the Valley Tan,” Utah Historical Quarterly 64:3 (Summer 1996), 224–245. Fleming concluded that The Valley Tan’s last issue appeared on 22 February 1860, apparently because the microfilm copies of the newspaper at church-owned BYU, where he was a graduate student, failed to include the controversial (and last) 29 February number.

[34] Morgan, The State of Deseret, 91–119.

[35] Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 6:92, 93.

[36] Bigler, Forgotten Kingdom, 221.

[37] Cannon to Young, 29 January 1874, Brigham Young Collection, LDS Archives. For the Joseph Morris story, see C. LeRoy Anderson, Joseph Morris and the Saga of the Morrisites (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1988).

[38] Lyman C. Pedersen, Jr., “The Daily Union Vedette: A Military Voice on the Mormon Frontier,” Utah Historical Quarterly 42:1, (Winter 1974), 39–48.

[39] Sherilyn Cox Bennion, “The Salt Lake Tribune,” Utah History Encyclopedia.

[40] Details of Salt Lake’s newspaper wars are from Harold Schindler, “Early Tribune, Deseret News Made Trash Talk an Art Form Tribune,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 14 April 1996, A1; and  Lockley, Recollections of Territorial Utah, Fred Lockley Papers.

[41] Lockley, Recollections of Territorial Utah, Fred Lockley Papers.

[42] Ken Verdoia, “Genesis of a Newspaper War.” Salt Lake: Magazine of the Intermountain West 14:1 (February 2003), 64.

[43] Michael Scherer, “The News In Mormon Country,” Columbia Journalism Review, March-April 2003.

[44] O. N. Malmquist, The First 100 Years: A History of the Salt Lake Tribune, 1871–1971. Salt Lake: Utah State Historical Society, 1971.

[45] Scherer, “News In Mormon Country,” Columbia Journalism Review, March-April 2003.

[46] Michael Vigh, Elizabeth Neff and Kristen Moulton, “Anatomy of a Newspaper War,” Salt Lake Tribune, 9 June 2002.

[47] The poll also found that 36 percent felt the Tribune was biased against the Mormon faith.

[48] Scherer, “News In Mormon Country,” Columbia Journalism Review, March-April 2003.

[49]Scherer, “News In Mormon Country,” Columbia Journalism Review, March-April 2003.

[50] Vigh, Neff and Moulton, “Anatomy of a Newspaper War,” Salt Lake Tribune, 9 June 2002.

[51] Waldman, “AT&T’s Plan to Sell Newspaper,” The Wall Street Journal, 6 October 2000.

[52] Vigh, Neff and Moulton, “Anatomy of a Newspaper War,” Salt Lake Tribune, 9 June 2002. Kirby is, in fact, a practicing Mormon. Hughes, on the other hand, is a humorless fraud.

[53] Vigh, Neff and Moulton, “Anatomy of a Newspaper War,” Salt Lake Tribune, 9 June 2002.

[54] Waldman, “AT&T’s Plan to Sell Newspaper,” The Wall Street Journal, 6 October 2000.

[55] Vigh, Neff and Moulton, “Anatomy of a Newspaper War,” Salt Lake Tribune, 9 June 2002.

[56] Scherer, “News In Mormon Country,” Columbia Journalism Review, March-April 2003.

[57] Lucinda Fleeson, “The Battle of Salt Lake,” American Journalism Review, March 2001.

[58] Peter Waldman, “AT&T’s Plan to Sell Newspaper Adds Fuel to a Salt Lake Feud,” The Wall Street Journal, 6 October 2000.

[59] Vigh, Neff and Moulton, “Anatomy of a Newspaper War,” Salt Lake Tribune, 9 June 2002.

[61] Scherer, “News In Mormon Country,” Columbia Journalism Review, March-April 2003. Pat Bagley is my brother, and as a weekly Tribune columnist, I was present when Singleton made the charge and heard of Shelledy’s remarks from a reporter.

[62] See “Groans greet Rocky’s mall jabs: Mall experts say put SLC’s vistas to use; Forum intended to kick around downtown plans, but mayor just snipes at LDS Church,” Salt Lake Tribune, 27 April 2005, C1; and “Corrections,” Salt Lake Tribune, 28 April 2005, A2.

[63] Sarah Gauch, “Arab Press Grows Bolder, But Blocks Remain,” The Christian Science Monitor, 28 June 2005, article accessed 28 June 2005, at http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0628/p05s01-wome.html.

[64] “Iran Sees Red over Election Text Messaging Craze,”22 June 2005, Iran Mania News article accessed 28 June 2005 at http://www.iranmania.com/News/ArticleView/Default.asp?NewsCode=32814&NewsKind=Current%20Affairs.

[65] Scherer, “News in Mormon Country,” Columbia Journalism Review, March-April 2003.

[66] Fleeson, “The Battle of Salt Lake,” American Journalism Review, March 2001.