The four hours that I spent watching Helen Whitney’s Frontline/American Experience documentary the Mormons, was almost as good as watching the extended version of Peter Jackson’s Return of the King.

On the whole it was fair. Many different perspectives were given as much time as they could to respectfully make their points. There were some things that could have been better, but first I will talk about what stood out as good.

The documentary was not supposed to be about the origins of the Church, Joseph Smith, or the pioneers. As the narrator said in the opening statements of the show, it was an attempt to answer how could a people, as reviled as the Mormons were by America at large, make a one hundred and eighty degree turn and become the embodyment of that country’s dream and ethos. So with this guiding question in mind, one understands why so much time is spent on magic, polygamy, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and other issues that so many in the mainstream find troubling when discussed.

In answering the question, it must first be demonstrated that there is a question in the first place, and in order to do so, a hard look must be taken at the history of the Church in its’ entirety up until things got significantly better in the twentieth century. This a huge task when you consider all that has ever been written about Mormon history. It was wise to zero in on Polygamy and the Mountain Meadows tragedy in order to understand why Mormons were the pariah of America.

Like a well written work of research, Whitney did a fantastic job of answering that question to those who are outside of the Church, the same way that Richard Bushman has provided a work on Joseph Smith that is not only good for members of the Church, but is accesible and comprehendable to those who are not members of the Church. In the end it was fair and that is all that I can ask for.

But as any work it was not without flaws. First the format makes it difficult to cover every necessary detail, even when four hours are devoted to it on the “Bill Moyers” television network (PBS). So with those constraints in mind, it must be realized that you cannot cover everything. You can only cover major issues and find articulate talking heads on both sides to provide snippets and sound bites that are edited in such a way as to produce a documentary with a coherent narrative and provides an answer to the essential question that the program seeks to answer.

If there was any section where things were tilted in favor of opponents of the Church, it was the section devoted to intellectualls who were excommunicated for things that they said in scholarly publications and symposia. I have nothing against Margaret Toscano telling her story, but the ammount of time alone devoted to her tilted things slightly into the realm of bias. In order to restore balance, they should have consulted Richard Bushman, and maybe Terryl Givens, about how they have dealt with the tension some academics might feel. It also would have been nice if they pointed out that Hugh Nibley had been critical of the Church for years and was never subject to disciplinary action.

Also they could have pointed out that even the most conservative, perhaps right wing authors, have been censured for their work when they overstepped their bounds in their attempts to produce orthodox works. One example that comes to mind is Bruce R. McConkie and the first edition of Mormon Doctrine. I think that that story is important if you are going to discuss those who have been censured for their scholarship.

Leaving out those possibilities, I think, tilted things away from being even handed in that segement.

I hope that Helen Whitney will put the full interviews into book form, or at least sell the rights so that someone might be able to compile this material. There are just too many people, on all sides, with too much important stuff to say that it would be a shame for it to meet its’ end on the cutting room floor.

If you are so inclined, purchase this dvd. I know that it will be gracing my dvd collection and soon. Who needs tuition money anyways?


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