forthcoming four hours of documentary television that it is calling
"The Mormons" – due to air on April 30 and May 1 on the PBS network.
Very few people outside of PBS itself have seen excerpts, and their
reactions vary depending on what they have seen as well as their prior
The documentaries – two hours on American Experience on April 30 and a
further two hours the following evening on Frontline – constitute what
is believed to be the most searching look at the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints in US television history.
Award-winning television producer Helen Whitney describes it as "a
complex film, a respectful film, but not an uncritical film."
Among hundreds of people interviewed for the film were Church leaders,
historians, academics, active members, former members and critics.
They address a wide range of topics, from the foundation of the Church
through to its worldwide operations today.
Helen Whitney told the Deseret Morning News that one of her prime
objectives was to remove stereotypes of the Church.
"I hope that most of the stereotypes — ideally, all of them — will be
blown away," she told the newspaper. "Because so many of them are just
based on ignorance. Ignorance about Mormon history, ignorance about
Mormon theology. Ignorance."
Whitney said that the Church had responded favorably to requests for
access to Church leaders and Church premises.
"The Church did not endorse the film. I had total independence," she
said. Church officials had no role in scripting, filming, financing,
or approving the content of the production.
A few scholars, including some who appear in the documentary, have
seen substantial parts of the program.
Their initial reaction: Church leaders and members are
extraordinarily eloquent in explaining the tenets of their faith. The
film is not superficial, which is often a criticism leveled at
However, some raised concern about what they feel is a
disproportionate amount of time given to topics that are not central
to the Church's faith. For instance, polygamy comes in for extensive
treatment in the first program, including substantial attention to
present-day polygamous groups that have nothing to do with today's
Church. The time devoted to portrayals of modern fundamentalist
polygamy seems inconsistent with the filmmaker's stated purposes of
getting inside the LDS experience, and of exploding, rather than
Other scholars criticize what they say is an imbalance in the
treatment of some topics, particularly the events at Mountain Meadows
in 1857. One said the film provides a distorted and highly unbalanced
account of Brigham Young and the Mountain Meadows Massacre alike.
Michael Purdy of the Church's Public Affairs Department has followed
the Whitney documentary closely for the past three years.
"The big question that members of the Church are asking is whether
these programs will come close to capturing the essence of how
Latter-day Saints define and see themselves," he said.
"Will members look at these films and say, 'yes, that's me.' Or will
they look at it and say, 'even after four hours, they missed the
point.' It comes down to both content and context and it is important
that those closest to the faith see themselves in the portrayal."
Either way, extensive post-broadcast discussion of the programs in the
news media and on blogs is likely at a time that the Church is already
a topic of rising media interest. The Church expects to participate in
those discussions through its Newsroom web sites and also in public