One of journalism's oddest assignments: 'Polygamy beat' at Salt Lake Tribune

Mormon polygamists are notoriously tough to interview and photograph unless there’s some sort of prior trust relationship. That’s why I was amazed to see photos in the High Country News of an annual polygamist gathering in southeast Utah.

The photos by Shannon Mullane, which unfortunately are copyrighted and can’t be reproduced here, are really good. They are also very human; polygamists giving each other back rubs and hugs; going on rafting trips and having picnics. Access like that comes from hanging out with people and showing up year after year as they get to know you. (I had to do a lot of that while researching my book on Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handlers.)

What’s different about this piece is that the families portrayed here are dressed like normal people, not like the women wearing long, flowered dresses and braided hair swept up into puffy coifs who get shown on TV.

On a Saturday in July, the sun shone on the red-rock cliffs of southeastern Utah. Heidi Foster sat on the banks of the Colorado River, handing out fruit snacks to kids from polygamous families.

Foster, a plural wife from the suburbs of Salt Lake City, was among about 130 people on a river trip. Foster, who brought five of her own children, saw it as part of an important weekend where her kids could drop their guard and be themselves. “If someone asks, ‘How many moms do you have?’ you can tell them,” Foster said.

The rafting was one of the highlights of the annual Rock Rally, a five-day polygamous jamboree at Rockland Ranch, a polygamous community about 40 minutes south of Moab. The rally included hiking, zip-lining, rafting and a dance with a country music band from a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona line.

I looked at the byline, did some digging and realized that the writer, Nate Carlisle, has something called the polygamy beat with the Salt Lake Tribune. Never knew there was such an animal, but the Tribune has had the beat for years. Carlisle took it on in 2006.

It’s a very complex assignment with the need for deep sources.

When news breaks about polygamist groups, that’s not the time to pick up the phone for the first time. Anyone on that beat needs to have done their homework beforehand.

THE BEST ESTIMATES put the population of Mormon fundamentalists — those who practice polygamy — at approximately 35,000 people, most of whom live in the West. Their status as modern-day outlaws means that many live isolated lives.

Polygamists often marry within their own group, but the Rock Rally gives them a chance to expand the pool of potential spouses. Valora Barlow, a plural wife who grew up in the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints community on the Utah-Arizona line, attended this year’s rally with her children. Polygamists’ family trees may be wide, but they aren’t necessarily tall. “I told my kids,” Barlow said, “ ‘You can't marry anybody that's a Stubbs, a Darger, a Barlow, Johnson or Jessop.’ And they're like, ‘Mom, there's nobody left.’ ”

More than half a dozen polygamous churches were represented at the Rock Rally, along with some polygamists not affiliated with one. Attendees came from at least five states and British Columbia.

You can’t help come up with questions as you read this stuff. One of the photos shows a cute, newly married couple cuddling up to each other. But happens next? Is the guy eventually going to take on another wife? And what happens to the leftover men?

This particular piece isn’t set up to answer those questions but rather to show polygamists as people like everyone else and not necessarily twinned to people like Warren Jeffs. Readers may remember him as the leader of the polygamy-practicing Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who was arrested several years ago, convicted of rape and given a life sentence.

Several years ago, Carlisle was interviewed by the Columbia Journalism Review as to what covering such a beat was like. Sources, he said, were always hard to keep current.

I do have sources down there, but here’s the trouble: Just about all the sources are people who are not part of Warren Jeff’s circle any more. So you hear about these weird orders that are given during Sunday services like, ‘don’t eat beans anymore,’ or ‘don’t drink milk anymore.’ And you try to track this down, and it’s darn near impossible because no one who was in that Sunday service will actually speak to you.

The beat does produce stories from time to time. Denver’s Fox TV affiliate did a piece in May about Utah teenagers from polygamous families who travel to Grand Junction, Colo., (the first major city over the Colorado state line) to get marriage licenses so they can marry their cousins. Cousin-to-cousin marriages are not allowed in Utah.

In January, Salt Lake City’s NPR affiliate interviewed Carlisle about his research into a polygamous group that in 1983 moved from Utah to southwest Missouri. They now number 400 people. The video with this piece also shows Carlisle and a photographer talking about their work.

Polygamists mainly reside in Utah and in all adjoining states, but there are also groups in South Dakota, Montana, British Columbia and Mexico.

The same story also ran in the Tribune and I found the comments enlightening. A number of writers accused the newspaper of normalizing polygamy, of creating a “puff piece” about the practice and ignoring the abusive things that go on behind closed doors.

Had the newspaper never run a zillion articles about the scandalous doings of polygamists, I might agree. But even people with the craziest religious practices have times of normalcy. This mass picnic was one.

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