Mormon polygamy explodes in the news. Why now?

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Kristine Haglund, editor of "Dialogue," appeared last night on the PBS Newshour.

Kristine Haglund, editor of "Dialogue," appeared last night on the PBS Newshour.

Kristine Haglund, editor of “Dialogue,” appeared last night on the PBS Newshour.

Yesterday afternoon, my phone was ringing and my email pinging.

The reason? Mormon polygamy is back in the news, so journalists are eager to help their readers and viewers understand what it all means.

And that’s great. I welcome the discussion. But the odd thing is that polygamy has been in the news since October 22, when the LDS Church released two Gospel Topics statements clarifying several historical facts about the history of Mormon plural marriage.

I blogged about it the next day, identifying five things about Mormon polygamy that the Church had officially confirmed through the statement.

I’m hardly the only blogger who covered the story last month (see here and here and here). So why did it take three weeks for the polygamy story to get picked up by mainstream media?

polygamy newsOn Monday, the New York Times presented an in-depth feature story on the subject with the headline “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had up to 40 Wives.”

Laurie Goodstein’s coverage was well-researched and well-written. It’s clear she has been working on it for some time (and I have heard through the grapevine that the Times wanted to hold the story until after the election so that it wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle of all the political news last week).

The Times polygamy story was also front-page and above-the-fold.

It’s interesting to learn that in this age of digital media, those three golden nuggets of old-school media (major news outlet, front page, above the fold) still matter. A lot.

So yesterday we had news coverage from around America and the world, as you can see from the screen shot above left — a partial listing of stories at some point yesterday afternoon.

The coverage included stories from CNN and NPR, which did a fine job, and the Guardian in the UK, which did not. Here’s how the subheads read in the Guardian piece:

The Guardian polygamy headlineDownplaying polygamy, and even removing discussion of its history from official curriculum, is not the same as claiming it never happened at all, which is what the subhead asserts. (It also suggests that Mormon leaders have been denying polygamy for 200 years, when the religion hasn’t even had its bicentennial.)

Several journalists have asked me in the last 48 hours why the Church released its polygamy statements now. What was the catalyst?

It’s a good question. However, the bureaucratic reality of it, which I tried to explain to NPR, is that these Gospel Topics essays are all the products of lengthy incubation. The Church has had experts researching these issues . . . and then writing about them . . . and then having their products go up and up and up the food chain for approval.

So, other than the ongoing catalyst of the widespread availability of potentially damaging information (and misinformation) about Mormonism online, I don’t see any particular new event that the Church is responding to.

A more interesting question for me to gently lob back to the journalists is this: Why did almost all of you only jump on this bandwagon when the New York Times said there was a news story?