As Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, aided by their allies, continue to slug it out, national columnists and reporters are experiencing the agonies of covering the Mormon church.

Utah news media has had to deal with the sensitivities in reporting on the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints and its powerful members since the show rolled into the Salt Lake Valley 165 years ago this month.

Unfortunately, Utah media still hasn't gotten very good at it.

Traditionally, a Utah reporter and editor/news director go through the following news selection process (Take it from someone who has worked in the newsrooms of the Trib and the Deseret News):

  1. Wow! We've stumbled onto a barn-burner of a story about (fill in the blank: Olympics, Main Street Plaza, City Creek Center, liquor laws, multi-million-dollar real estate scam, corruption at the Legislature, open records, trysts in hot tubs, potholes)!
  2. Oh, S**T! Reporter turns up the first Mormon connection. (Note: I'm not saying Mormons are any more dishonest as any other group just that they are as dishonest as any other group. And in a population that is at least two-thirds active Mormon, including most of the Legislature, the executive branch, school boards and the DABC—even little digging into a story usually turns up an LDS luminary or lay clergyman.)
  3. Inevitable discussion begins: "If we aggressively report and write this story with its unfortunate Mormon connections, how long before our bosses get complaints that we're "Mormon persecutors?" (about 43.5 seconds).
  4. Self censorship rears its hideous head. The suddenly "loose-cannon" reporter (who is often a Mormon): "If we don't go after this story like a pit bulls on crack—we betray our sacred watchdog role as a journalists." The now-preternaturally-objective editor: "Whoa, kid, let's make sure our ducks are in a row and our motives are pure before (I call up a hellacious s**t storm) we proceed."
  5. Story runs in vicinity of obits. The developer/legislator/official LDS mouthpiece calls the editor/publisher/station owner to express "sadness and disappointment" in reporter's motives.

The new Deseret News and KSL, of course, skip this agonizing process and simply produce another series on porn addiction.

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On the national scene, the latest hapless victims being called anti-Mormon bigots are Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast and the editors at Bloomberg Business Week. BBW inexplicably gave Mormons an easy opening to attack an otherwise solid story on LDS Church finances by attaching a gratuitously tasteless cover image, shown above.

Sullivan, a Roman Catholic, has been arguing that Mitt Romney's religion has "cultish qualities," and that is a subject that journalists need to explore in a presidential candidate:

Why cannot non-Mormons come and go in Mormon Temples as they can in Cathedrals and mosques and synagogues? Why is it so hard for some to leave the LDS Church without social ostracism and peer pressure? How much money would taxpayers be automatically giving the LDS church by paying the president his salary? How much control does the LDS hierarchy have over its members? Why is missionary work compulsory? Why were Ann Romney's non-Mormon parents barred from attending her own Temple sealing? 

Hoo-boy, Andy, you've saddened and disappointed the wrong people and can expect a freight train of passive-aggressive pain headed your way. The first shot from Mormondom came in the Washington Post:

No one believes Sullivan’s own Catholic Church—a global faith that has inspired some of the world’s greatest art, thought, and philanthropy—is a cult. But using Sullivan’s tactics, it isn’t hard to cast it in a dark, suspicious light.

Sullivan, whom any Utah reporter would have warned away from invoking the loaded C-word, responds to the first round of attacks here.

I am not going to be intimidated by accusations of "prejudice" into not exploring aspects of Mormon doctrine and practice when debating a presidential candidate whose entire identity has been forged by the LDS church and is one of the most prominent former church officials ever to run for president. This is a legitimate question about the identity and character and beliefs of a man running for the highest office in the land.

This is going to get ugly. (But generate lots of page views.)