Post columnist incites outrage:

Woody Paige's anti-Mormon diatribe incenses thousands of readers and ends in profuse apologies

Feb. 24, 2002

by David Kopel

Woody Paige's Feb. 12 column in The Denver Post making fun of Mormons has generated by far the biggest anti-media firestorm in Colorado in recent years.

While most of the column denounced the entire state of Utah and dealt with legitimate topics, such as failures in the mass transit system, Paige also threw in several nasty barbs at Mormons. For example, he wrote that Mormons "ask you to worship a salamander." (A forged document from the 1980s claimed that Mormon prophet Joseph Smith received his revelation from a salamander, rather than an angel; the story is detailed in the book Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders.)

Paige also wrote that Mormons "consider you inferior if you're not white" and "require you to wear weird underwear." The former comment was a reference to a doctrine, abandoned in 1978, that prevented blacks from becoming priests. The "underwear" remark referenced special garments which Mormons wear after certain temple rites.

The problem was not, as some of Paige's defenders claimed, that he made an underwear joke (even Mormons sometimes joke about Temple garments), but the overall tone of the piece, which was angry and hostile, not funny.

Protests against Paige began pouring in immediately. By that afternoon, Paige had already apologized on a KOA radio sports program. His next column was all apology, and Post Editor Glen Guzzo offered another apology in last Sunday's newspaper. The Post has also given a good deal of space to letters to the editor denouncing the column. The Post chalks up the problem to an "editing breakdown," and promises reforms to set clearer boundaries on acceptable commentary.

How could Paige, and whoever edited the column, not expect the response that they provoked? I think the response lies in the blind spots about religion that are pervasive in today's media.

Last fall, when the University of Colorado played Nebraska twice in high-stakes football games, Paige wrote several columns mocking the entire state of Nebraska, denouncing its inhabitants as bumpkins with nothing on their tiny minds except football. While the columns provoked a bunch of angry replies from Nebraskans, no giant controversy resulted.

The difference with the Utah column, of course, is that making nasty fun of someone's religion is much more offensive than making fun of their state in general. This point may not be intuitively obvious in the generally secular newsroom culture.

Even so, I doubt that if the Broncos were playing the Detroit Lions or the New York Jets, Paige would have mocked the opponents' hometowns by making fun of Muslims or Jews. Although Mormons are a minority religion everywhere outside Utah, they generally aren't treated with the same deference that most other minorities are.

Given that Paige and the Post have both apologized quite sincerely, I don't join with the people who are demanding that he be fired. Interestingly, while Mayor Webb demanded that Dan Issel be fired simply for a single heat-of-the-moment response to a drunken lout who was screaming at Issel, Webb hasn't said a thing about Paige's far more premeditated, extensive and unprovoked language. Nor have any of the newspaper columnists who piled on Issel written a single word about Paige.

Generally, the Post and the Rocky Mountain News treat religion seriously, and cover the Mormon religion appropriately. Both papers have a full-time reporter assigned to religion: Virginia Culver (Post) and Jean Torkelson (News), who wrote a good column about Denver-area Mormons on Feb. 11. The News also carries Terry Mattingly's Saturday columns about religion. A Feb. 4 story from the Post's Four Corners bureau looked in depth at Mormon missionaries in Durango.

Paige's Mormon column illustrates how difficult it is to write high-quality humor consistently. When Paige is serious (as he was in his columns from New York City written in September), he can be superb. When he's trying to be funny, he's much more uneven.

A Feb. 14 editorial by the Post chastised President Bush for blocking federal money for the United Nations Population Fund (aka the United Nations Fund for Population Activities or UNFPA), the United Nations agency that gives money to foreign governments for family planning. The Post dismissed as "vague" the claim that UNFPA funds coerced abortion and sterilization in China. To the contrary, the evidence about UNFPA's role as an accomplice in forced abortion and sterilization is quite specific and well-documented by groups such as the Population Research Institute (www.pop.org/china), the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (www.c-fam.org), and by Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., who is UNFPA's leading congressional opponent. The only contrary evidence comes from UNFPA itself, which exonerates itself and China based a brief tour of China in which UNFPA staff spoke to Chinese citizens for a grand total of 30 minutes, entirely under the watchful eye of Chinese government officials.

Below this column is a space devoted to media feedback from readers. Please keep on sending plaudits and brickbats about all Denver media in your letters; they supply me with lots of ideas for columns.  

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