By Rhett Wilkinson
The summer beauty of Logan, Utah is not the only thing that many out-of-town students missed last month. Given that an NBC crew stepped foot—and spent a while—in Utah State University’s Old Main building, there were plenty of reasons to be hanging around USU’s Quad the morning of June 22.
The occasion: a visit from employees of one of the most-viewed TV networks in America, NBC, to room 332 of the school’s oldest functioning building in Utah. There awaited religious studies professor Phil Barlow, prepared to give yet another description to the media of an increasing presence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the public forum, in light of the presidential race involving one of its most prominent members, Mitt Romney. The discussion is usually slightly different—Barlow has received the questions about American exceptionalism, undergarments and Christ ministering in the Americas many times previously. This time, the questions surround the business influence and character of the Republican challenger for the U.S. presidency.
Barlow’s chat was just one in a continuing pattern of small-town and prominent media about the fastest-growing religion in the U.S., according to a May report from the once-a-decade 2012 Religious Congregations and Membership Study. If not statewide media like the Salt Lake Tribune or Deseret News, it’s the Boston Globe, Washington Post, New York Times, or Financial Times of London and Stern Magazine in Germany—the latter Barlow described as the nation’s equivalent to TIME Magazine.
“Al-Jazeera came several months ago,” Barlow said. “CNN was a couple of weeks ago. Their piece won’t be finished until sometime around the Republican National Convention. Nippon TV, the largest television station in Japan, ended up cancelling.”
What a bummer. But then again, perhaps the chink in the resume armor let Barlow take a breather. It’s not like he doesn’t teach several courses in higher education when a camera or recorder isn’t placed in front of his kind face. But he says he is usually happy to oblige, which may be a good thing. After creating one of the first Mormon Studies academic programs in the nation and having written books relating to the faith just a few years before Romney made a first go at the Oval Office, Barlow has made himself a prime media source—inadvertently, he insists— as someone who originally sought to influence the “scholarly world.” His credentials during this particular season aren’t hurt as a former counselor to Bishop Romney in their Boston LDS congregation. The instructor of more than two decades held the position during the late 1970s, when he was studying at Harvard University, and Romney with the oft-debated Bain Capital.
Despite his intentions of gaining admittance into academia, however, Barlow found himself seeking to achieve simplicity in conveying his theological findings within five years of the completion of his doctoral work. In meeting a void, those pesky reporters found an abettor — a reflection of his writings he finds “substantive but accessible.” By extension, the past president of the Mormon History Association said that entails a challenge.
“There is a difference from being simplistic and achieving simplicity,” Barlow said, before adding that most media will hope their prose to come to an eighth-grade level. “One’s an iPod; it’s user-friendly. I strive to make my writing somewhat in that spirit. I’m not accusing the public of being dumb, but they want it accessible to people like that. So I make that kind of a goal, with the media, to intelligently speak to the public all at once.”
It’s a sentiment that partially results from Barlow’s desire, as a “believing Latter-day Saint,” to see the church portrayed well—a hope that motivates the way he approaches interviewers as a private Mormon and as a scholar, wishing news consumers to understand a “dramatically, religiously rich” case study.
It’s also because the task isn’t easy—and Barlow admits he doesn’t always do it well. As he’s become more proficient in the past couple of years, when the attention grew further, he’s developed a theory that has helped distinguished him as someone reporters can likely expect to receive a positive response from in their inquiries. Starting the practice after completing “Religion and Public Life in the Midwest” with Trinity College’s “Religion in the News” editor Mark Silk in 2004, the role truly applied four years later, when Romney gave John McCain a run for the Republican nomination. Admittedly not an expert on politics, Barlow was quoted in early 2008 in a USA Today story about Romney’s image as a bishop, when the first flurry of reporters first called.
There are some people that Barlow likes to receive calls from more than others. While he has appreciated work from the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein, or NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander, who conducts interviews for Good Morning America’s Matt Lauer, he hasn’t admired New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd—who he described as a “particular caricaturist for not being ‘well-informed.’” Regardless of his opinions of the authors, their stories are usually published — but that doesn’t mean Barlow gets to every one of them.
“I never even know when they are going to run,” he said. “I can’t keep up with all of it, but naturally [I do follow] some [stories], especially when they are a novelty to me.”
Regardless of the unique nature of the story or its voice, Barlow has denied interviews many times. If the reporter gives him enough time to set an appointment to interview, and the interviewer has been fair with their requests and storytelling in the past, Barlow is willing. If it’s that guy from Portugal who wanted a profile on Romney in just a few days, for instance, think again. Or Barlow may just request a different reporter. On any account, Barlow knows he faces the task, with any story, to marry a converging, shrinking newsroom and quicker deadlines with that of expansive academia about a religious structure and ideology that proclaims it is the “marvelous work and a wonder” foreseen by Isaiah of the Old Testament—a task that could perhaps rival Nephi’s struggle to obtain the brass plates from Laban early in the Book of Mormon.
While Barlow may be unsure about that Goliath of a task, and although he acknowledges he hasn’t always optimally succeeded, he believes in it.
“I know some important colleagues in American religion that they find too superficial that they consider it bad and won’t deal with it. I don’t agree,” he said. “It can be said in a three-volume study, but also in a couple of pages. You can get a little frustrated in the sense of ‘you are asking me [to put] years of research [in] a single paragraph or a few sentences,’ so that’s very tricky business, but so is poetry with little words. Fine journalism can be like that, with compression at work. So, I respect journalists. Like professors or politicians and doctors, they range in quality.”
In this case, many like Barlow might just hope that the highest-skilled are assigned to the research, bill or surgery.