A Washington Post article presents the responses of Helen Whitney, the producer of the PBS series "The Mormons" which first showed earlier this week, to questions and comments submitted by viewers. I'll summarize her comments below. I'm a little surprised at how negative the response seems to be from rank-and-file Mormons — go take a look at comments posted at the Deseret News for a good idea of what I'm talking about. There's also a one-hour program at KUED that talks to Helen Whitney, Marlin K. Jensen, Ken Verdoia, and Terryl Givens, among others, about the series.
Anyway, in the short comments at the Post, she said her approach is to present "minimal analysis, maximum imagery, music and personal stories. The great challenge is to get people to talk about these elusive subjects with poetry and precision." Yes, the music and imagery was more pronounced than in the average PBS documentary, although the discordant piano music and the haunting Moroni image were a little strange. She tried for balance but expected criticism: "Yes, I did try to achieve balance. I expected angry comments on the extreme edges and hoped for wisdom in the middle. I have not been disappointed."
Responding to a viewer's comment that the series seemed biased and interviewed excommunicated Mormons, Whitney pointed out that very little time, in fact, was given to what a second viewer called "bitter, excommunicated members of the church." She also noted that a semi-official response to the show posted at LDS.org was generally favorable. "Opinion on PBS Programs Broad and Diverse" is the title of one response at LDS.org. It says: "Those interviewed in the program — even though they hold different points of view — were articulate and measured in their comments, giving serious thought and consideration to the topic." Here's the intereting quote, though, which follows a reference to polygamy and the Mountain Meadows Massacre ("MMM"):
But addressing these and other topics in a forthright way seems to have allowed viewers less familiar with the Church to see a new and broader dimension of the Church, shorn, perhaps, of one-sided stereotypes and caricatures.
I can't tell whether "those less familiar with the Church" refers to non-LDS viewers who were supposedly familiar with slanted accounts of polygamy and MMM but saw a more balanced presentation in "The Mormons"; or (more likely) whether it is an indirect reference to the fact the most Mormons are unfamiliar with polygamy and MMM, and were confronted with a more balanced presentation that showed "a new and broader dimension of the Church" rather than the "one-sided stereotypes and caricatures" presented by CES.
Whitney explained the large block of time devoted to MMM as necessary to "provide the historical context." She also defended not putting little "LDS" or "non-LDS" labels below each commentator to encourage viewers to carefully consider what was actually said rather than simply reacting to who they were. A viewer unintentionally confirmed that view by noting that Mormons "tend to discount the opinions of non-LDS academics and historians." Personally, I'm not sure they pay any more attention to LDS historians than they do to non-LDS historians, but I understand Whitney's reluctance to pigeonhole each commentater. If you want a guide to the speakers, see my Who's Who list.
I think most interesting response was about what she found most fascinating about the Mormons while doing the documentary. I'll end with her reply:
I was struck by the emphasis on certainty in your religion. I come from a tradition which encourages doubt and questioning. My own faith is inflected with doubt which I feel is intimately connected to my faith. However, I sense from many conversations with Mormon believers that doubt can be seen as undermining of the faith, even dangerous to it. When I went to my first testimonial meeting, and heard men, women and children describe their faith using the words "I know" I was truly surprised. They didn't use words like: I hope, I believe, I intuit, but the ubiquitous phrase "I know."