Less than three months after winning the Pulitzer, Benson, now in his second stint at the Arizona Republic, Phoenix, found himself embroiled in a highly publicized feud with the Mormon Church about what he calls a "cocoon of deceit," a flap that brought him to grips with his journalistic principles on one side and his religious faith on the other.
Benson recently traced his post-Pulitzer year in a four-hour interview, a session in which the aftershocks of his emotional odyssey often rose to the surface.
"My training as a journalist began to compel me to seek honest answers to my questions. I wanted the church to shoot straight with me, and it wasn't," he said.
The cost proved dear. Benson renounced his membership in the church in October and to a great extent was ostracized by his family and Mormon friends.
Though a self-described "opinionator," Benson said he knows a hard, objective fact when he meets one.
Few journalists have seen the inside of church power in the way that Benson has, via family ties. His grandfather, 94-year-old Ezra Taft Benson, is the president and prophet of the Mormon Church, a worldwide religious organization based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and officially known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. At one time, the elder Benson was a national political figure and served two terms as secretary of agriculture under President Eisenhower.
"A born-in-the-bed Mormon," the younger Benson calls himself. His father, Mark, is a stake president, and an uncle, Reed, is a professor of ancient scriptures at Brigham Young University, the Mormon-run school in Provo, Utah.
The younger Benson was baptized in the church, graduated from BYU and did missionary duty in Japan. He once held a seat on his stake's High Council in Arizona.
"Cut me," he said, "and I bleed Mormonism. Even though I'm out of the church, I'll still be, in a cultural sense and a moral sense, a Mormon to the day I die."
The decisive episode in Benson's discontent with the church arose not long after his grandfather ascended to the presidency in 1985. Family and others of the inner circle noticed a decline in the elder Benson's mental and physical state.
Benson said his grandfather would stumble through sermons and sometimes lose track of his words, leading to long silences and discomfort of audiences. A series of strokes led to impaired speech and invalid status. Personal letters to family began to arrive signed by signature machine, Benson said.
While his grandfather slipped into a "semisenile" condition, Benson said, church leaders acted as if all was well, that the prophet was in charge of church affairs. Benson said he soon began to see it as a hoax, a giant cover-up from rank-and-file members. The church, he believed, had boxed itself into a theological corner.
Benson said Mormons sell their church on the premise that "it is being led today by a modern-day, living prophet . . . and his name is Ezra Taft Benson. And he is the sole mouthpiece to whom God reveals his truth to a troubled, searching world.
"As long as the prophet's alive, he's got to be functioning, he's got to be leading, he's got to be revealing."
Fearing a loss of power and validation if they admitted that the prophet was incapacitated, Mormon leaders went to great lengths to perpetuate an illusion, Benson said.
"They'd take him out to a function where he's supposed to turn a spade of earth," he said. "They'd put his foot on the shovel and take a picture. Or he'd be seen waving to a crowd with a handler manipulating his arm."
All photos were taken from his grandfather's left side to hide the medical tube permanently affixed to the right nostril, Benson said.
"He's been treated like a dimestore mannequin in a window while the business of the enterprise has been conducted behind closed doors, " he said.
At the interview, Benson wore a cap with "Dave" written in front, an allusion to the movie by that name in which the U.S. president is incapacitated and a look-alike takes over.
Benson said he remained silent for a long time about his grandfather' s condition. He at first thought that if the church was not open about it, there must be a reason. He said his father urged him to remain silent, saying the press couldn't be trusted.
"And here I was," Benson said, "a member of the press and the oldest grandchild of Ezra Taft Benson. I found myself caught in this quagmire, this dilemma."
Contacted about his grandfather's health by reporters in Utah, Benson said, he soon fell into a role as "deep throat," an anonymous guide.
"I felt," he said, "I had this obligation as a journalist not to hide the truth, to go after the truth, to try to be honest and forthright and deliberate in everything that I said. So rather than tell untruths, I went off the record with reporters and encouraged them through their own investigative effort to come up with the story, and then I would confirm it on conditions of anonymity."
A Sunday morning question from his son, Eric, provided the last straw, Benson said. "He asked, 'Why do they call grandpa a prophet when he can't do anything?' His great-grandchildren could see it; anyone could see it. It was a dirty family secret."
A short time later, Benson said he called Vern Anderson, an Associated Press reporter in Salt Lake City, and told him that he would speak on the record for the first time about his grandfather's condition should he want to do a story.
"D-Day," as Benson called it, was July 10, 1993. With the Republic' s blessing, Benson said, he first told his story to Anderson. The Republic used Anderson's story as a basis for its own, he said.
The stories revealed a prophet too weak to run the church. An uproar quickly followed.
Benson said he received more than 100 letters condemning him. One critic wrote, "Quite a guy. He wins the Pulitzer and thinks he can run the Mormon Church."
Benson's cartoons regularly home in on religious issues, including Mormon ones. He rendered numerous unflattering cartoons in the mid-1980s of then-Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham, a Mormon.
But this time, Benson refrained, a noticeable departure from his credo, "I don't aim. I just shoot."
"It was determined," he said, "because I was a player in this story, I was a source, I was a family member close to my grandfather, that it might appear to be self-serving if I were to do an editorial cartoon on it. . . . I think I made my stand unequivocably clear in the observations I gave to the reporters."
Those observations caught many by surprise, especially his parents and siblings.
"My family was dumbstruck," Benson said. "They were aghast. They were angry, disappointed. They could not understand why I would undermine the family."
Benson said a family member told him that he would not be allowed to see his grandfather again, that he couldn't be trusted. The threat later was withdrawn, he said.
"The issue to me was the church as an institution, taking tithe-payers at the rate of upwards of $15 million a day and doing it in the name of supporting a prophet-led church," he said.
Though some church members supported him, harassment continued on a local and individual basis. He was criticized by his local bishop, and fliers attacking his statements were disseminated. Then his alma mater's Brigham Young Magazine decided to delay publication of a profile of him, written in light of his Pulitzer.
The magazine's action stung. Benson has fond memories of his years at BYU and "the glory days of the student newspaper," the Daily Universe. "I still have my pica pole I was given when I left BYU, which says on the back, 'Truth, energy and talent.'"
Benson said he received a review copy of the manuscript, "a pleasant puff piece." The magazine's editor admitted that Benson's public comments about the church were responsible for the delay in publication, Benson said. He requested that the article be scrapped permanently, and it was.
"I didn't want to be a part of any enterprise allegedly done in the name of good journalism that was kowtowing to fear and pulling its punches . . . for fear of what the boys with the hands on the purse strings might think.
"Ironically, the thrust of the article was 'Steve Benson made his reputation at BYU by poking pontificating balloons of self-importance, goring sacred cows and troubling the administration. . . ."
Benson's views seemingly were verified by an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City. A reporter at the paper sifted some eye-popping information from Utah's corporation records. The published report said the corporation that manages the church effected in 1989 a transfer of power from Ezra Taft Benson to his two counselors, Gordon Hinckley and Thomas Monson. That was done the same year that his grandfather last was seen in public, Benson said.
"This is what's so ironic," he said. "The church leaders and members are saying, 'Steve, where's your faith? Don't you have faith God could raise Ezra Taft Benson to speak and lead the church?' But in secret the leaders of the church had amended the faith that God would do that. . . . They put their faith not in God but in the lawyers who transacted the papers and who actually assured the transfer of power to them."
Benson has made himself available to media in Utah and to other groups interested in hearing his story. He helped line up interviews for a Republic reporter doing a story on the church's recent wave of excommunications.
In September, Benson was granted a special audience in Salt Lake City with two of the church's leading apostles, Dallin Oaks and Neal Maxwell. He was allowed to ask questions of a confidential nature about church matters only because of his family ties to the prophet and his professional status as a member of the media. Later, Benson said, he broke the confidence when he believed that Oaks had lied to a reporter about what was said in the meeting.
"He has committed a public act of deception, dishonesty and moral criminality," Benson said. "What do you do? I really wrestled with that."
Not long after that, he and his wife submitted their resignations from the church, and in November, the resignations were accepted. The couple will let their children decide on their own whether to stay in the church, he said.
"I will not allow myself to be abused in this kind of dysfunctional system, where they try to manipulate me, control me, silence me, try to deny my right to speak out," Benson said. "Because if we don't have the individual right to speak out, what are we?"
Months later, old family ties continue to fester, he said, especially those with his parents.
"There's a sense of pain and a loss I detect every time I talk with them. I think they kinda wish things would be back the way they were, but they never will. I know there's a price to be paid."
His grandfather's condition remains unchanged, Benson said.
"This is really the ironic and wonderful thing," he said. "He's the one who encouraged me to go into editorial cartooning. He said, 'We need people to stand up against the established order and tell us the truth as they see it.'"
Benson said he did not time his public criticism of the church to follow his winning the Pulitzer.
"All the Pulitzer did," he said, "was give additional focus to what I was saying. It was an amplifier. I didn't use the Pulitzer as a platform."
He now refers to his former church as "Red Square on Temple Square," a reference to the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. The church is going through "a totalitarian mode," he said. "I wanted to be a good Mormon, but at the same time, I wanted to be truthful, I wanted to be honest and I wanted to be a good journalist. I found over time I could not be a good Mormon and an honest individual. I kinda had to make a choice." -- Steve Benson
By Walt Jayroe
Jayroe is a free-lance writer based in Phoenix
Copyright 1994 by Editor & Publisher.