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Out of bounds: Businessweek cover story distorts

When Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Caroline Winter visited Salt Lake City to learn about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she was on to a great story.

In this moment of increased curiosity about the LDS Church, she had a rare opportunity to help Businessweek's readers understand how principles of thrift, self-reliance and volunteerism have transformed a small group of persecuted pioneers, relegated to the desert wasteland of the Great Basin, into a self-sufficient people and organization that meets, with increasing effectiveness, the spiritual and temporal needs of millions of families worldwide.

But Winter missed that opportunity, and instead delivered up, in Friday's Businesweek cover story, an unbalanced and out-of-context caricature of the LDS Church's investments.

As a deadline-driven media company we know, as well as anyone, how hard it can be to get and tell the complete story. But the corners cut in this week's Businessweek story do a disservice, not just to Mormonism, but to the entire economy of care that is represented in America's faith community.

In an earlier era, Businessweek was known for intelligently introducing its audience to useful conceptual approaches, like the interplay of business and policy. Businessweek was a thought leader that was relevant to business leaders and non-business audiences alike.

But in this week's edition, Businessweek seemed out of its depth on the very issues it should own, like explaining thoughtfully how traditional business assets play out differently for ecclesiastical organizations.

Unlike the physical assets of for profit businesses, the chapels, cathedrals, temples, synagogues and mosques that define the sacred space of America's faith communities do not provide cash flow. Indeed, their upkeep consumes significant resources. The education, pastoral counseling, charitable health services and care for the poor that define the daily activity of America's religions do not turn a profit. And traditional accounting can't begin to value the time and expertise volunteered within America's congregations.

Those are just a few important concepts that Businessweek might have elucidated for its readers when discussing the mission-aligned business investments of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, investments that provide a kind of rainy-day fund for a growing worldwide church that ministers to the needs of millions of members and non-members alike.

So how did Businessweek editors manage this story? Instead of burying it, they sensationalized it. They used their cover illustration to transform what Latter-day Saints consider a moment of sacred history into flippant sacrilege.

In a recent study, Diane Winston at the University of Southern California and John Green at the University of Akron found two-thirds of Americans believe media coverage of religion is too sensationalistic. For Businessweek editors to countenance the sensationalism represented on this week's cover offends not just the Latter-day Saint community, but people of faith everywhere.

Dr. Richard Mouw, the President of Fuller Seminary (a leading graduate-level Evangelical seminary) may have expressed it best: "This cover ridicules respected spiritual leaders and the Mormon faith by distorting a picture of sacred value and respect and turning it into a caricature.

"To be clear," said Mouw, "a journalistic examination and analysis regarding the financial practices of any group is always fair game. But if such mocking and distortion were focused on Evangelicals or Catholics, we would call foul. For the Mormon community — and all of us — this is out of bounds."