With fewer half-naked aborigines in the world to hang out with, National Geographic decided to spend some time last year with the polygamist clan north of the Grand Canyon.
The magazine received "exclusive" access to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Colorado City, Arizona and adjacent Hildale, Utah, resulting in the cover story by Scott Anderson -- with photos by Stephanie Sinclair -- for the February issue. The writer and photographer attended an FLDS funeral, talked to kids doing their farm chores and chatted with polygamist wives about sharing their husbands. Town leaders sought and received the approval of Warren Jeffs, the cult's imprisoned leader, before letting National Geographic in, Anderson states.
The article mentions the cult's higher-than-usual prevalence of fumarase deficiency, a disease that often results in severe mental retardation and is caused by too much inbreeding. Perhaps the second-ugliest aspect of polygamist life (the first being institutionalized child rape), is the "reassignment" of wives from one husband to another by the FLDS' leader, and Anderson asked about that:
After hearing Melinda's stout defense of [Warren] Jeffs, I ask what she would do if she were reassigned.
"I'm confident that wouldn't happen," she replies uneasily.
"But what if it did?" I ask "Would you obey?"
For the only time during our interview, Melinda grows wary. Sitting back in her chair, she gives her head a quarter turn to stare at me out of the corner of one eye.
Despite some tough questions, the exclusive access seems to have mainly gotten the magazine a heavy dose of polygamist spin.
Clearly, the cult wants to counter some of the negative publicity it received after the 2008 raid of the YFZ Ranch in West Texas. National Geographic approaches the subject matter in its typically non-political way, giving the polygs roughly the same kid-glove treatment it gave to Montana's Hutterite cult in 2006.
We learn that "sister wives usually get along very well," from one sister wife. Kids don't eat junk food and help with chores. The community helps its own like something from President Obama's wet dream: Anderson describes how FLDS members built a four-bedroom home for a member in one day, starting with bare earth.
Colorado City has banned TVs, but National Geographic reports that residents own cell phones, are "highly computer literate," run big businesses, and prefer newer SUVs. When Anderson wonders aloud why so few residents wear glasses, one man tells him, "People here are just really into laser surgery."
The article ends with a 92-year-old woman and children weeping as they recall being split up from their polygamist family -- temporarily -- by Utah authorities in 1956.
We'd have liked a harder hit, especially after former New Times' writer John Dougherty spent the first half of the 2000s whipping up national attention about the sex crimes and corruption. Dougherty was the first to report Jeffs' illegal sex with a 17-year-old and the full extent of his dictatorial power. Check out coverage here.
This was the situation as Dougherty covered it in one 2005 article:
Those who dare to question Jeffs stand to lose their family, home, job and, most important, salvation.
An ongoing three-year New Times investigation of the polygamous community has uncovered evidence that all government functions in Colorado City and Hildale, including the town councils, the police department, the fire district, the municipal electric utility, municipal courts, and the school board, are completely controlled by Jeffs.
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We're not sure what, if anything, has changed.
As we reported in October, the school board was returned to local control following scrutiny of its finances by authorities.
The cult seems to be more savvy about garnering positive media attention, hence the NG article. Meanwhile, state Attorney General Terry Goddard apparently hasn't done much with a fraud investigation into the group's leaders. We put in a call to Goddard's office to get an update on the state's efforts to curtail the cult's illegal activities -- we'll update this post if we hear back.