Boston Herald 12/10/99

Too much faith: Film on Mormon founder doesn't question enough

TV Review/by Robin Washington

Friday, December 10, 1999

By accident, WGBH-TV (Ch. 2) did documentary journalism a public service recently. With its fall pledge drive approaching, the station excused itself from the Nov. 26 national airing of "An American Prophet: The Joseph Smith Story" (now scheduled for WGBX, Ch. 44, Dec. 20 at 8 p.m.).

While that decision was made purely in the interest of raking in callers' bucks, it did give 'GBH one less thing for which to apologize.

Unfortunately, PBS cannot get off the hook so easily. In its lax script supervision of this big-budget, two-hour story of the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, PBS has neglected the rules of documentary journalism to air a program that is more proselytizing than precise.

That may be in part because the show is produced by a Mormon (Lee Groberg), written by a Mormon (Heidi Swinton) and funded by Mormons (The J. Willard Marriott Foundation). That is certainly not to say that members of special groups cannot report on their own; indeed, this black and Jewish reviewer has done so on numerous occasions.

But Mormon history tends to change depending on who's telling it. In fact, writes historian Richard L. Bushman - himself a Mormon and a talking head in the show - writings on Mormon history "suffer from a division between the works of believers and nonbelievers . . . (burdening) the reader, who must always be conscious of the historian's own attitude toward Mormonism."

Those attitudes diverge immediately at the telling of the 14-year-old Smith's purported vision of the "personages" of God and Jesus Christ in frontier New York state in 1820. Later, Smith reported visits from an angel named Moroni, who would lead Smith to founding the new religion.

While the documentary - narrated by a non-Mormon, Gregory Peck - is rich in analysis of the visions' religious significance, there are far fewer voices suggesting that maybe Smith didn't talk to angels.

The problem, however, is more with what happens next. In the Mormon version, Smith followed Moroni's instructions to dig up gold plates on which were engraved records of Jesus Christ's post-Resurrection visit to the Americas, which Joseph was commanded to translate as the Book of Mormon, the cornerstone of the new faith.

If the show offers little dispute on the vision thing, it has no one at all speaking critically on the existence of the plates, reportedly seen only by Smith and a handful of others who also had vested interests in their existence. That's a crucial point, because if they didn't exist, then Smith made them up, and the whole religion is . . . a hoax.

Instead, we hear Mormon writer Dallin Oaks offer as evidence of divine intervention that the unschooled, backwoods Smith translated the record in less than 60 days. Yet all reputable sources - Mormon or not - clearly state that Smith dictated the book from April 1828 to July 1829, more than a year's time.

OK, so maybe the producer can't be held responsible for the accuracy of his scholars. But he certainly can control his script and narrator. Yet Peck's narration speaks of "translation" as fact and repeatedly utters lines beginning "Joseph took the plates," implying, under the voice-of-God rule of documentary journalism, that the plates truly existed.

"Maybe that does cross over a little bit from the objectivity of the narrator," producer Groberg conceded from his home in Utah. But, he continued, "PBS accepted it. The narrator said it."

That acceptance, a PBS spokeswoman said, hinged on the critical analysis of the vision part, which she said carries into the plate discussion. She also said PBS viewed the show as a cultural documentary rather than an investigative one, saying religious tales need not meet the same journalistic standards.

That's simply not true. While stories of Moses or Mohammed may defer to scripture, it is only when it is the only available source. The same does not apply for historical figures such as Smith, who have real birth and death certificates or the 19th century equivalents. While acknowledging the above issues, presenting station Vermont Public Television said its primary concern was the handling of polygamy, Mormonism's most sensitive subject.

Yet once again, the narration fails, as the P-word is steadfastly avoided. Instead it refers to the milder-sounding "plural wives." (One commentator does utter the word, only to quickly say that polygamy was an official policy of the church for less than 50 years.) Nor are we told how many of those plural wives were Joseph's, though a plethora of sources both Mormon and not count at least 28.

Groberg spares us those prurient details, saying he didn't want to go down that road. But a documentarian who only goes where he wants, regardless of the evidence, is committing a disservice to his viewers. PBS knows better. It should fix this show or pull it.

Another review. This one from The Washington Post


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