Fox News Needs to Get a Grip on its Affiliate’s Issues with Mormonism

It’s going to be a long 2012 campaign season.

And before it’s all over, every low-budget media hack in this country (and a few high-budget hacks too) is going to take his turn with Mormonism.

This week, it’s Memphis Fox News’ Ben Ferguson, a 30-year-old conservative radio and television commentator with more microphone than sense.

As part of a four-segment series on Mormonism, Ferguson developed a rambling, virtually content-free six-minute segment featuring man-on-the street interviews with local Memphis residents about, well, how very “fruity” Mormonism is.

(There are 45,000 Mormons in Tennessee, about .7% of the population. Mormons left the state en masse in the 1880s due to anti-Mormon violence.)

“Can you name the candidate who is running for president who believes that if he is a good person, he will get his own planet?” Ferguson goaded. 

Five or six Memphis citizens shake their heads, chuckling, rolling their eyes. One woman darts from the camera. 

“It’s not Mitt Romney is it?” asks a man in a blue shirt with a ponytail.

“It is Mitt Romney,” intones Ferguson, aping and goofing, “it is.”

“Would you vote for someone for president who believes that if they are a good person, you will get their own planet?” Ferguson continues, “You want your own planet, don’t you?”

Sure, it’s a distorting and sensationalistic caricature of Mormon beliefs to say that all of us believe we’re going to get our own planets. You could sit in your local Mormon Church for a month of Sundays and hear no reference to it. Even among orthodox Mormons, talk of planets (and the American location of the Garden of Eden—another matter ridiculed by Ferguson) is the subject of gentle insider humor, a nod to older strains of Mormon belief and folklore.

But even more objectionable is holding a televised street-corner referendum with the sole aim of making a minority religion look foolish.

No one should be surprised to find a Fox News franchise aiming for ratings by appealing to the coarsest, least-informed impulses of the American public, or by setting up and exploiting well-intentioned people and organizations. (Just ask Shirley Sherrod, or Van Jones.) That’s always been a Fox signature tactic. 

Still, it’s worth asking: Is it the policy of the Fox News conglomerate to promote public ridicule of minority religions and cultures?

Because it’s not just Ben Ferguson who is responsible for the segment. He was supported by folks all along the production chain down at MyFox Memphis. Somebody—a producer or even a manager—should have vetoed the whole thing. But no one did. They all thought Ben Ferguson’s anti-Mormon antics merited the Fox logo.

If ridiculing minority religions and cultures isn’t official Fox News policy, if it’s just, say, an unseemly aspect of their corporate culture, Fox might want to do something about that. Maybe it’s time to get the word down the line to hundreds of other Fox News affiliates nationwide that minority-baiting is unacceptable.

Because we’ve got fifteen months left until November 2012.

And it already feels like it’s going to be a long campaign season.