What’s a Newsroom for?

Many have highlighted the LDS Newsroom’s very interesting coverage of the discussions surrounding Proposition 8, in particular the document entitled, “The Divine Institution of Marriage.” The analysis of this document and the arguments and doctrine it contains I leave to more talented and audacious bloggers than myself (suffice it to say that like any other political document, it contains things that I find convincing and things I do not), but what I find infinitely more interesting than the immediate squabble over Prop 8 is the nature of the Newsroom itself and this document in particular. “The Divine Institution of Marriage” gives us an opportunity to revisit and microwave one more time that most rewarmed of topics, that of defining and delineating our notions of what constitutes doctrine.

First, a few handy links to some of the better discussions/explorations of the topic: here, here, and here. I don’t think these are prerequisites to talking about what constitutes doctrine or what exactly the Newsroom is, but they are helpful and interesting reads and good to have read (or to say you have read).

The concept of an LDS Newsroom is not new. Church Public Relations have been around for many years, and have issued statements, clarification and guidance to the press for a long time. Before the formal organization of LDS Public Affairs, Church leaders would often address the press directly; Mormons have a long history of interacting with the media, going back to Joseph Smith. Even some of our canon comes from such correspondence (the Wentworth letter in particular). Accordingly, I don’t think that we should be surprised that the Church deigns to communicate directly with the press on issues of contemporary interest. Rather, I believe two forces — the advent of the Internet and the blurring of what constitutes traditional press — have caused public relations to enter new territory and as a result the average member is faced with new questions of authoritative standards.

Concerning the internet: the LDS.org site is a tremendous resource for news concerning the Church worldwide. Never have regional and global news affecting the Saints been so easily and quickly accessed. The LDS.org portal is in some ways more valuable than Google for learning what the Church is doing, and where, because (a) local information is passed upwards directly from local units and (b) presumably, nobody is better situated than Public Affairs to know what is happening in the COB. Thus the Internet has rendered LDS.org the single most important website and hub of information for Church members, has made the print version of the Church News completely irrelevant, and also forces publications with LDS-based content (such as the Trib or even the DNews) to go dowsing in new territory (witness the new Mormon Times site).

The blurring of what constitutes the “press” is another factor that puts the LDS Newsroom directly in front of us. It is clear, at least to us bloggers, that at least some portion of what the Church places in its online news content is directed not just to mainstream media such as newspapers or TV, but also to pundits, bloggers and independent media. The traditional concept used to be that members of the recognized press were the duly appointed ministers who alone could approach the altar of public affairs departments for their sound bites. But now anyone with a Blogger account and reasonable Google skills is sending email to Salt Lake — and increasingly, they are getting replies. The equivalent is that of opening press conferences up to the wider public, and accordingly Public Affairs is becoming the spokesperson of the Church not just to the media, but increasingly to the Saints themselves.

So, to paraphrase Reuben J. Clark, when are the writings and sound bites of Church Public Affairs entitled to the claim of doctrine?[1] Of course the public affairs folks are not saying anything that Church members ought to find revolutionary or controversial. Their business is apologetics-lite, and so explanations and clarifications we find there are of a general nature, with many references to more conventionally authoritative sources such as General Conference addresses and the like. As a result, there is little original content in your average Newsroom document to even require the inquiry as to its authoritativeness. “The Divine Institution of Marriage,” as luck would have it, is an exception to this general trend; it contains a number of arguments and rationales which do not stem directly from scriptural or canonical sources, and so it invites inquiry.

I like Nate Oman’s integrity theory of Church doctrine, namely that the problems of authority and morality that Church members face when deciding what is doctrinal and what is not require us to make some sense from clear cases of Church doctrine and its context. As Nate paraphrases,

[The discovery of Church Doctrine] begins in the present and pursues the past only so far as and in the way its contemporary focus dictates. It does not aim to recapture, even for present [Church Doctrine], the ideals or practical purposes of the [authorities] who first created it. It aims rather to justify what they did (sometimes including what they said) in an overall story worth telling now, a story with a complex claim: that present practice can be organized by and justified in principles sufficiently attractive to provide an honorable future.[2]

I believe that we can most accurately view what the LDS Newsroom is doing in this light. That is, the Newsroom is doing the same thing we are all doing with respect to Church doctrine: trying to figure out what the hell it is. By this I mean not just establishing a normative sense of what is doctrine and what is not, but also establishing an hermeneutic for viewing the totality of doctrine. The Public Affairs mandate is a little different than the average member’s, but fundamentally I believe we are all performing similar internal processing tasks. But oddly, because of the centralized authority structure of our Church, the Newsroom is adjusting the boundaries of canon and doctrine even as it seeks to define it for the press. In ages past when Church spokesmen were less accessible and less read, this effect would have been relatively negligible; today, a document in the LDS Newsroom or statement from a Public Affairs employee is tantamount to a declaration from a General Authority[3].

When “The Divine Institution of Marriage” first appeared, I wrote to Church Public Affairs with some questions: Can you tell me who authored it? Is it directly for Proposition 8, or is it a general declaration of doctrine? Is it written to explain the Church’s position to members, or to non-members? What sort of doctrinal or authoritative weight should members of the Church give to the LDS Newsroom document?

The answer I received is instructive not only as to this recent document but as to the general topic at hand:

“The Divine Institution of Marriage” was written to increase understanding of the Church’s position on same-gender marriage in general, but it has particular relevance to the Church’s support of Proposition 8. It is an official Church document approved by The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve and it contains both doctrine and other information intended to help Church members and others understand the Church’s position on the issue.

It is easy to see that we lack rules for recognizing what is Church doctrine, and that this absence of rules does not in the least prevent us from talking about Church doctrine or from acting in ways we consider to be right and, well, doctrinal. I believe that the LDS Newsroom highlights (and will ever increasingly do so) for us the perils and promise of identifying our doctrine in a Church where centralized information and authority are now instantly accessible to all.

—————————
1. “When Are the Writings and Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?” J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Address to Seminary and Institute Personnel, BYU, 7 July 1954.

2. “Jurisprudence and the Problem of Church Doctrine,” Nathan E. Oman, Element Vol. 2 Issue 2 (Fall 2006), p. 13.

3. Or, at least, that’s the practical effect. I am fairly certain that this is not entirely the desired effect, at least with respect to members of the Church.

Comments

  1. Aaron Brown says:

    Thanks for the link, Steve.

    I like your analysis, and find nothing to disagree with here, but that probably comes as no surprise.

    I look forward to a fight in the comments though, with someone, anyone …

    AB

  2. That’s interesting. Do unsigned editorials now carry as much weight as First Presidency messages in the Ensign and general conference talks? I wonder if all the pages that appear in the newsroom have been reviewed and approved by the leading quorums, or just this one.

  3. Aaron Brown says:

    Should the fact that Steve Evans had to send an email to Church headquarters in order for us to know that “The Divine Institution of Marriage” was “approved by the 1st Presidency and Quorum of the 12″ impact how we view the document’s authoritativeness? Would , or should, a more explicit statement like this at LDS.org change in some way the weight we assign to it in the narrative or “story” that we compose about church doctrine?

    I suspect some would say yes.

    AB

  4. Eric Russell says:

    Whether or not Newsroom articles represent doctrine, I think it’s fair to say they represent the position of the church at a given time – which, for all intents and purposes, is just as good.

  5. Eric,

    Wasn’t a document about stem cell research posted on the Newsroom and then quickly withdrawn a year or so ago?

    Are the unsigned editorials on the back page of the Church News as authoritative as a talk by Pres. Monson? I have a hard time believing that is the case.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    AB, I suspect you are right in your #3, and indeed I would include myself in that number. Fact is that when we are engaging a given Church document and we are forced to correlate it to our own perspectives, authority counts a great deal. That’s perhaps mistaken, but such is our religion I think.

  7. Great post. The answer you received is interesting – I’m not clear on several things:

    1. Some of the document is doctrine, some of it is not. Which part is and which part isn’t?
    2. It’s an “official church document” – but does that mean it’s official church doctrine?
    3. What does it mean to be “approved” by the FP and QTA?

  8. Eric Russell says:

    Mark, I don’t recall the details of that, but if the document was withdrawn, then there’s a good chance it no longer represents the position of the church. I don’t see that as being a problem.

    My point is that I think the line between “doctrine” and “not doctrine” is less bright and less significant than most take it to be.

  9. My point is that I think the line between “doctrine” and “not doctrine” is less bright and less significant than most take it to be.

    I agree completely.

    The episode with the stem cell document is a perfect illustration. It was posted, then taken down again within 72 hours. Continuing revelation is one of the most attractive features of Mormonism, but usually things don’t change that fast.

  10. Steve Evans says:

    adcama, that you would raise those questions is of course the purpose of this post and all those other discussions. I believe that we have no universal or consistent approach to answering them completely, and would disappear down some sort of rabbit hole of authority if we were able to provide answers to your immediate questions.

  11. Aaron Brown says:

    “Some of the document is doctrine, some of it is not. Which part is and which part isn’t?”

    The parts I agree with are doctrine. The parts I don’t agree with are not. This is a useful test for determining doctrine, in my experience. It always seems to comport with my own views, which is rather nice.

    AB

  12. Steve Evans says:

    Oddly I use the same test: would Aaron Brown agree with this?

  13. Aaron Brown says:

    but seriously, I suspect the author of the statement would say that all of the public policy rationales are “not doctrine” while the basic position that “marriage should be between a man and a woman” is doctrine. Just a guess, though.

    AB

  14. Your approach is not unique, Aaron, because just about every other Mormon I have met uses the same test.

    What makes you unique is that you admit it.

  15. #11…perfect.

  16. Aaron Brown says:

    Yes, but I “know” that my approach is correct, Mark, while others only think they know theirs is.

    Did you notice how, when I used the word “know” in quotes just now, that a surge of spiritual ether seemed to leap out of your keyboard and slap you in the face, thereby establishing the truth of my words? So see, that proves it.

    AB

  17. Maybe it’s doctrine; maybe it’s not. Maybe I believe it; maybe I do not. Maybe I have a testimony; maybe I don’t. Maybe I’m a member; maybe I’m not. Ambiguity reigns supreme and truth is a matter of a person’s imagination. I thought so all along. It’s the political season and the truth is there is no bright lines, and no reason for any of us to be smug. Yet I often find myself feeling so, and I often see my religion’s family acting so.

  18. “no bright line”, that is.

  19. Steve Evans says:

    walt, huh?

  20. Aaron, I find that the ether leaps out of my computer only when I imagine James Earl Jones reading your words, with special emphasis on the word “know.” Wait–didn’t he do Darth Vader’s voice? Darth Vader AND CNN. What does that tell you about truth?

  21. If the Church could get James Earl Jones (let’s call him JEJ) to read the Divine Institution of Marriage, would the opponents of Prop 8 even have a chance? My guess is, only if they get Morgan Freeman to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or something. :-)

    Seriously, though, I think the Church and its PR arm like the ambiguity of doctrine and…, well, not doctrine. Keeping the membership guessing keeps most LDS far, far away from the edge of the cliff, so to speak. Also, pinning down doctrine has a way of coming back to bite the Church. Like blacks and the priesthood, now relegated to “folklore”.

  22. If “The Divine Institution of Marriage” was written to

    increase understanding of the Church’s position on same-gender marriage in general, but it has particular relevance to the Church’s support of Proposition 8.

    an official Church document approved by The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve

    contains both doctrine and other information intended to help Church members and others understand the Church’s position on the issue

    it didn’t work in doing any of those things substantively for me. It raised more questions in my mind than it answered. It didn’t clarify any “doctrine” in any significant way that I can see, and the fact that it came from the highest authorities of the Church only makes me all the more discouraged than ever. At the basic level, doctrine must have something to do with truth, and more and more it seems to me that truth is subjective, and not objective.

  23. Steve Evans says:

    Walt, I think you’re probably overstating things. The world is not a ball of confusion just because a Church PR document is not particularly clear in all its arguments.

  24. Excellent post, Steve. It really puts into words many thoughts that have been scattered about in my head lately.

    And a big thanks to Aaron Brown for…not sure what for. But thanks.

  25. Steve Evans: I didn’t say that the world was a ball of confusion. I said that it seems to me more and more that the truth is subjective, and that it is less objective than I had thought. It requires me to use my imagination. If I am to understand the Gospel truth, and the doctrines or teachings of the Lord’s Church, I must do it subjectively. Isn’t the gospel the gospel love–or, if you will, charity, or the pure love of God?

    When I have love, it’s not hard for me to empathize with a left-handed person in a right-handed world, even though I am right handed. I can imagine the irritations of having to deal with the world which favors right-handed folks. Sometimes my imagination gets carried away, and I imagine things the wrong way, and so I must always communicate with and seek to understand those with differences from me. Historically, left-handed persons as a minority have at times fared poorly, even very poorly amongst a majority of right-handers, and at times they have even been called evil, and have endured parents and teachers intolerant of them, forcing them to forego the use of their favored appendage to their detriment. For most in our society, we have gotten over that right-handed prejudice and ignorance, and we have made some serious accommodations. I can also imagine many other scenarios where through ignorance and prejudice we have failed and do fail to love others and to respect others for their differences from us, especially if we are in the majority or have more prestige and power.

    Love is subjective, isn’t it? I believe more and more that I must embrace the truth with love–subjectively–even if it runs contrary to the majority or to the authority.

  26. The Right Trousers says:

    I like the fuzziness of our doctrine. It gives me the wiggle room to do whatever the heck I want. Right? Yeah.

    But just imagine if we had clearly delineated, logically rigorous doctrine. Our scriptures would be a neat little pamphlet of axioms that you could use to derive a solution to any moral problem. Wouldn’t that be something? It immediately follows that there would be no need for prophets or revelation, except in creating the pamphlet. A relationship with God would be strictly unnecessary, except for that one time he tells you, “Yep, that little pamphlet is true.” And absolutely everyone would be qualified to judge everyone else!

    Utopia.

    Unfortunately, I suspect morality covers an infinite range of situations, so Gödel tells us you’d never finish writing down the axioms. That is, assuming you could define your terms precisely in the first place. Ah, well. It was a nice dream.

  27. The Right Trousers says:

    FWIW, I’m not saying it’s bad to want to have precisely defined doctrine. I’m just saying (rather sarcastically – hope I didn’t offend) that there are good reasons we can’t.

  28. Steve Evans says:

    Walt, I think you are missing the point. First, you are confusing broad notions of “Truth” with particular LDS definitions of Church doctrine. The two are different things and your glomming together of them is inaccurate and unhelpful. Truth can refer to correct facts or to notions of historical fidelity or to broader claims of correct principles; LDS Doctrine, on the other hand, is far more narrow and is more akin to the law or specific codes of conduct than anything else.

    Your second mistake is that of saying that Truth is subjective or that somehow (by your odd association) LDS Doctrine is subjective (others on this thread are using the term fuzzy). Neither are really very subjective in the common pejorative sense that they are somehow solely in the eye of the beholder. In the case of LDS doctrine in particular, the vast majority of rules and principles that govern Mormon conduct are not open to much interpretation and are quite clear. In the case of Truth, I think D&C 93 and other scriptures teach quite clearly that the essence of Truth is to see things as they really are, i.e., not from a purely subjective point of view.

    The gist of all this is to say a) your comments are difficult to follow, but b) assuming I can figure out what you are trying to say, I am pretty sure you are not correct. To use the example at hand of “The Divine Institution of Marriage,” you seem convinced that because the doctrine in it is something you disagree with, you must therefore start interpreting Truth (as well doctrine) subjectively in order to cope. This strikes me as a wrongheaded approach to either Truth or LDS doctrine. In any event, I think each of us should move on.

  29. Nice piece, Steve. As your #28 recognizes, several people (almost certainly more than Wait) missed your point that at least some, even quite a bit, of how we understand the truth is decided hermeneutically, which is not the same as “subjectively.” You’re right (but that’s because you agree with Nate, who agrees with me).

  30. Steve Evans says:

    Jim, indeed — I’m not right because of my positions — I’m right because of your positions. I know what side my bread is buttered on!

  31. Steve Evans says:

    …but yes. Subjectivity and hermeneutics have something of a similar ring, at least superficially, but we are talking about very different concepts.

  32. Steve, I am so sorry to be difficult to follow and to not, as you suggest, “move on” for just a moment more. Thanks for making me, just another interloping dumb schmuck, feel so welcome posting with you. (I guess that for you it’s kind of like trying to recognize “doctrine” in the news room’s release, eh? Nearly impossible?) But perhaps you are right. You say–not suggest, mind you–that I confuse “Truth” with “doctrine.” Well, perhaps so, but from what I’ve read from your references and the posts here on BCC and elsewhere, no one seems to have quite a firm handle on what doctrine is or isn’t in many, many instances, but there are lots of suggestions and ideas floating about. In fact, many on BCC have characterized doctrine with an elusive or, perhaps better said, with a dynamic nature. Fuzzy some say. As to truth, because it is “knowledge” of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come (D&C 93), isn’t it by its very nature always subjective? Can “knowing” be objective?
    You say that I glommed “doctrine” and “truth” together. How so? I didn’t mean to if I did. What I said was that at some basic level doctrine must have something to do with truth, and that more and more it seemed to me that truth was subjective. Like you I have read the document “The Divine Institution of Marriage” and I find myself perplexed by most of its rationale and most importantly, its conclusions. And I find unsurprisingly that I’m not alone. But that’s another topic. It seems to me that you used the news release’s failings to suggest the difficulty in recognizing what doctrine is. If I have misunderstood your post, I apologize. In your reply to me you go on to suggest definitions of truth and of LDS Doctrine referentially, although without precision. You say that generally LDS doctrine (rules and principles that govern conduct) is not open to much interpretation and is quite clear.
    Your post says that “it is easy to see that we lack rules for recognizing what is Church doctrine,” but nonetheless we can talk about it, and act as though we know it. Hmm. Don’t we do so subjectively? Yet you say such the notion strikes you as wrongheaded as to Truth or as to LDS doctrine. Why so?

  33. Steve Evans says:

    annnnd….. moving on.

  34. FWIW, I’m not saying it’s bad to want to have precisely defined doctrine. I’m just saying (rather sarcastically – hope I didn’t offend) that there are good reasons we can’t.

    TRT, I agree. I think the problem is we all craft a separate, loosely-authorized versions of doctrine, then label it ‘authoritative,’ then go around beating each other over the head with it. The newsroom does not help clarify that situation with its vague status. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the Brethren don’t know we do this, because their official comments don’t seem to be measured in a way to reduce this situation.

  35. Peter LLC says:

    #21:

    James Earl Jones (let’s call him JEJ)

    I would not be surprised if he prefers J. Earl Jones.

  36. The LDS Church Newsroom is not an expression of LDS doctrine, but rather a permutation of doctrine and policy as expressed in modern PR terms.

    It is how the marketing/PR team of the Church would like members of the media (including bloggers) to frame/discuss certain issues.

    This is no different than the PR discourse of other corporations, educational institutions, nonprofits, churches, and political offices. One can, of course, argue about whether or not this type of discourse has value (I think it does, but only so long as other types of discourse continue to be produced and validated).

    Or in other words, it’s not just trying to figure out what the hell doctrine is, it’s trying to figure out how to present it within the confines of PR discourse. It’s not a totality — it’s a facet. This is why other forms of publishing and explaining church doctrine exist. All the way from the standard works and conference talks down to self-help/study books published by Deseret Book.

  37. FWIW, I’m not saying it’s bad to want to have precisely defined doctrine. I’m just saying (rather sarcastically – hope I didn’t offend) that there are good reasons we can’t.

    Oh, I thought you were being cheeky. ;)

  38. Steve Evans says:

    Wm, good points, except that I think you are reading things as how PR would see itself rather than how it is seen externally. When something comes out of Church Public Affairs, I don’t know that the average Mormon is able to see it as just public relations. This is because of the centralized authority and informational structure of the Church.

  39. I don’t know that you know either.

    I’m not sure how you can blog, especially the kind of blogging that engages the LDS Newsroom, without some awareness of being a participant in the PR process.

  40. William, I think that kind of awareness can develop over time but it isn’t necessarily innate to the notion of LDS blogging. I agree with you overall though.

  41. William’s comparison of the church’s PR effort to similar efforts put forward by secular institutions highlights the point, I think.

    Corporations other institutions struggle to define and delineate their purpose, with various voices and departments asserting disproportionate influence. I know a woman who works at church HQ, and she assures me that the office politics which are played at 50 E. North Temple are as childish and pointless as office politics anywhere. She has some pretty hilarious stories to tell about departments trying to one-up each other by enlisting the support of a GA. A cometeting department then enlists the support of a higher-ranking GA, and so the fun begins.

    In addition, the way we use the passive voice complicates the issue. “We have been instructed to….” leaves the door wide open. Who, exactly, instructed us?

  42. I think that kind of awareness can develop over time but it isn’t necessarily innate to the notion of LDS blogging.

    I’m not so sure. A Technorati search of the URL of the Church’s statement on Prop. 8 turns up results that suggest to me an awareness of participation in a PR process.

    Of course, that’s just one URL. But it would be interesting to do a more complete analysis of blogger responses to LDS Newsroom postings from the past 2 years. Any of BCC’s social sciences types willing to take that on?

  43. Or to put it another way — I see more reading of the tea leaves or disagreements than assertions of doctrinal status.

  44. merrybits says:

    I’m so glad this topic came up and that I’m not the only one confused by the “when is it doctrine or not” issue. I think I’ve got it figured out now: Something is considered doctrine when it is read by Bro. James E. Jones and Aaron Brown agrees with it. In truth, I wish it were really that simple.

  45. Aaron Brown says:

    Actually, I get two votes, while James Earl only gets one, so it’s really a bit more complicated than you describe, merrybits.

    AB

  46. Yesterday’s news, perhaps, but Steve’s comment,

    When something comes out of Church Public Affairs, I don’t know that the average Mormon is able to see it as just public relations. This is because of the centralized authority and informational structure of the Church.

    is interesting to me. I would myself react much as Steve has done to a statement in the LDS.org Newsroom, but I know many of my fellow saints would take it as authoritative and doctrine. BRM’s Mormon Doctrine fits that same criteria for many.

    I think Elder Ballard probably understands more about the Newsroom being a PR vehicle, based on his many discussions about new media, whereas other GA’s also would view it as being much more authoritative as a vehicle for disseminating doctrine. It’s not just us lay folks.

  47. Steve Evans says:

    Kevin it’s never to late to highlight my genius.

  48. Steve, if not now, when? And if not us, who? We live to serve.

  49. There’s also precedent for a PR document later achieving quasi-doctrinal status–the Proclamation on the Family being the most recent example.

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