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Anti-Mormon bigotry repeated by MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell, watchdogs say

Lawrence O'Donnell
Lawrence O'Donnell
Richard Drew, Associated Press

When Sen. Orrin Hatch proclaimed Tuesday afternoon that President Barack Obama's re-election campaign would "throw the Mormon church at" Mitt Romney, Democrats were quick to reaffirm "attacking a candidate's religion is out of bounds" and dismiss the senator's opinions as "utter nonsense."

Apparently MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell missed the religious-attacks-aren't-cool memo, because on the very same day as Hatch's controversial comments O'Donnell blatantly attacked Romney's religion by making inflammatory and inaccurate statements about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its founder, Joseph Smith, during political programming intended to offer analysis of Tuesday's presidential primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

The media watchdog website NewsBusters reported that on Tuesday night O'Donnell said, "Now part of Romney's religion problem is that he's a part of a new religion. Established religions like Judaism, which is about 4,000 years old, and Christianity, which is about 2,000 years old, don't easily warm up to new religions like Romney's, which is only 182 years old. Mormonism was created by a guy in upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it. Forty-eight wives later, Joseph Smith's lifestyle was completely sanctified in the religion he invented to go with it. Which Mitt Romney says he believes."

At the conservative National Review Online, Kevin Williamson dropped the hammer on O'Donnell in a piece titled, simply, "Lawrence O'Donnell, Bigot."

"Thanks for the Muppet News Flash, Larry," Williamson wrote. "The exact nature of Smith’s polygamy is contested (his only children were from his first wife, leading some to believe that his polygamy was of a non-sexual nature), but, yes, he was a polygamist. So was Solomon. So was Abraham. … Mormons gave up polygamy a long time ago. It’s not the 19th century any more. But anti-Mormonism is this season’s fashionable bigotry."

This is not the first time O'Donnell has used intolerant speech against Mormons on television, Williamson noted. In 2007, before he got his gig on MSNBC, O'Donnell didn't bother feigning objectivity during a televised appearance on the political talk show "The McLaughlin Group." On that occasion O'Donnell described Mormonism with adjectives like demented, crazy and ridiculous; he also called Smith a "lying, fraudulent criminal."

Not long after the McLaughlin Group imbroglio, O'Donnell attempted to clarify his positions about Mitt Romney and the Mormon faith by penning a blog post for the Huffington Post.

"The more you know about Romney's religion, the more you want to ask him questions about it," O'Donnell wrote. "Your religion was founded by an alcoholic criminal named Joseph Smith who committed bank fraud and claimed God told him polygamy was cool after his first wife caught him having an affair with the maid and who then went on to have 33 wives, and you really believe every word that he said and wrote? Do you really believe that the American Indian is genetically descended from Israelites? Would it shake your belief if DNA testing showed no such relationship between Indian tribes and Jews? Do you really believe that Jesus Christ came to America?"

More recently, the Deseret News staff editorial "The subtler side of religious bigotry" noted in February that O'Donnell had recently broadcast "an ominous portrayal of Mitt Romney's Mormon family history."

Deseret News sister station KSL Radio interviewed BYU communications professor Sherry Baker on Thursday to get a sense of how the viewing public tends to internalize affirmative statements from talking heads like O'Donnell. When viewed through Baker's paradigm, the subjective tone of the comments O'Donnell made about Mormonism is neither surprising nor fully transparent within the context of cable television.

"Television has blurred the lines there's no clear-cut differentiation between opinion and information gathering-and-dissemination in the current media environment," Baker said. "And there are responsibilities when one is speaking to large groups of people, to speak with respect and accuracy and fairness and truthfulness.

"Now that doesn't mean that we can't have an opinion about things. But there are also other societal standards that should be considered. We increasingly decry religious prejudice and bigotry, just as we would decry racial prejudice and bigotry."