Few if any television documentaries in recent history have been more keenly anticipated by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than the twin programs scheduled for this evening and tomorrow on the PBS network.
Part of the interest comes from the unusual length — a total of four hours on two of the flagship programs of the PBS network, American Experience and Frontline — on successive evenings. The documentaries are also being screened during a period of unusually high public interest in the Church because of the presence of prominent Church members on the U.S. political scene.
While the Church distances itself from political discussions because of its policy of partisan neutrality, it welcomes serious and respectful attempts to explain its history, beliefs and practices.
“The biggest issue we have with news media is that they so often fall back on stereotypes to describe us, or their coverage is superficial,” said Bruce Olsen, managing director of Church public affairs. “Whatever one says about these programs, four hours of television is not superficial.”
Because Church leaders and members have not seen the documentaries, official comment will be deferred until midweek. However, Church spokespersons have emphasized that the filmmaker’s style is to take difficult questions and then seek a variety of articulate individuals with divergent views to address them. They are expecting a probing style and a wide range of reaction even among Latter-day Saints.
Today’s New York Times says that Church members and leaders who speak in this program are “admirably forthright about their religion’s history, strengths and challenges.” The newspaper adds, “It’s great to hear people who believe in something and can articulate it without sounding crazy or defensive.”
The Wall Street Journal said on Friday that the programs present even sensitive topics in “an understanding way.” The Orlando Sentinel said the documentaries represent a “thoughtful, probing look” at the religion.
“[Producer Helen] Whitney has found first-rate speakers and assembled the material with style,” the Sentinel said. “She achieves balance by interviewing believers and skeptics, church insiders and the excommunicated. Most crucially, she provides respect that has often been denied the religion.”
Later this week, the Church will facilitate feedback from the public and from Church members on this Newsroom Web site.