Most people credit the tele-series "Big Love" for sparking fascination in Mormon mating customs; it's unlikely that the moderate Mormon Mitt Romney's electioneering has that much to do with this phenomenon.
But for Brooke Adams, there's no need to multi-task as a reporter anymore. Polygamy is her full-time beat for the Salt Lake City Tribune. A million readers have clicked onto her online articles over the past year,
and their interest is not flagging. Surely they cannot all be related through Brigham Young!
According to an article in this week's Editor & Publisher, hers is the only exclusively polygamy beat in the nation. She is the go-to person for quotes about Mormon women. She knows many modern women who share their husbands with 3 other wives and has gained the confidence of her interviewees, who trust her not to misjudge or misquote them.
Although Utah has outlawed polygamy, as has the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (more commonly referred to as the Mormons) Adams estimates there are about 25,000 to 30,000 members of polygamist or "plural life" families in her state. Some 37,000 are believed to be living throughout the western United States.
It was clearly the legal battles of Warren Jeffs, the polygynist leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (or FLDS, formed in 1935 by a number of polygynist Mormons who had been excommunicated), that inspired the expanded reporting. Jeffs, who lives in Hildale, Utah, where the church is partially based, was arrested last year on felony charges related to his part in arranging an underaged marriage between two cousins. On the FBI's Most Wanted List for a time, Jeffs' legal battles have drawn national interest.
Editor Nancy Conway says she decided to expand the paper's coverage of the topic as Jeffs' legal tangles grew. Polygamy, she says, "is a part of the social structure of the west. We felt we needed to look at all its aspects." Conway says the Tribune's reporting has drawn both praise and criticism, "but in the end it is our job to tell the truth as best we can."
Adams prefers to use the politically correct phrase, "plural-life families", which makes them seem like people rather than textbok cases. Since fundamentalist Mormon women do not have multiple marital parners, only the men do, the technical term the Tribune uses is polygyny. (Polygamists sound as if they lead secret lives, to many out-of-state readers.) After eight years of gaining insights, Adams no longer worries that she is "outing anyone" with her reporting on this sociological curiosity. When she spotlights the travails of, say, Winston Blackmore -- who supported 15 wives and at least 100 children-- it's in the public interest. ""I don't think the fundamentalist community wants crimes to go on either, arranged marriages or forced underaged marriages," she says.