Lee Groberg Speaks
by Bryce Anderson
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This page has been visited times since my poor gerbil Phil said his final goodbyes.
I went to a fireside for the Stansbury Park, Utah stake where Pres. Lee Groberg spoke. For those not familiar with the name, Groberg was the executive producer of "American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith," a documentary which played on PBS. I didn't bring a tape recorder, so all I have is a page of notes written on the back of an announcement I ripped off the bulletin board at the stake center. Oh, if anyone's interested, the Single Adult Information Hotline for the Northern Utah area can be reached at 1-800-537-6726.

The meeting opened with "Praise to the Man." After this musical avowal to avenge the blood of the martyrs, our stake president introduced President Groberg. Before he began work on "American Prophet," Groberg directed "Trail of Hope," a PBS documentary about the pioneers.

Citing the prophetic words of Moroni/Nephi during his appearance to Joseph Smith in 1823, Groberg reminded the congregation that Smith's name "was to be had for good and for evil." He then read some excerpts from a letter received by PBS, wherein Joseph Smith was called a liar, an adulterer, a perpitrator of bank fraud, a money digger, a sometimes drunk, a child sex offender, and a coward. The audience, of course, met this with muttered indignation. He pointed to the footnotes of the letter, saying that they were all "taken out of context" or "not credible." I recall he also used the term "laughable," but my notes do not reflect this. Another letter claimed that Joseph Smith died in a shootout which he himself provoked. Groberg derided this, reminding the congregation that Smith was outnumbered three hundred to four. While the classic definition of a martyr doesn't involve the victim shooting back, I think the writer was going out of his way to be offensive.

He then talked about a run-in with a PBS executive who had confronted him with some information which he had gotten off the Internet. He noted with amusement that the World Wide Web is "pathetic," and not a credible source of information. That kind of hurt.

But then he went on to a happier note, reading excerpts from several people who had watched "American Prophet," taken an interest in the Church, and were taking the missionary lessons. This is noteworthy, since the director later tries to defend himself against those who claim "American Prophet" was more a propaganda piece than a serious documentary.

He then went on to talk about what it had taken to bring "American Prophet" into being. Since PBS wouldn't accept a program paid for by the Church, Groberg instead went to the Marriotts. They were more than happy to fund the project. In fact, Marriott added a "blank check clause" which essentially promised that Marriott would pay for any overruns in the budget.

Groberg spent quite a lot of time talking about Gregory Peck, the famous actor hired to do the narration. I thought one anecdote was particularly revealing: When Peck came to the line in the script where the Golden Plates were taken back by an angel, he said he had a problem with the story intellectually. Groberg reminded him that there were many things in Peck's own faith -- Catholicism -- which he simply took on faith. The plates, he said, were just like that. Peck agreed, and then read the script just as though he believed it too. I have a problem with this anecdote. Intellectually.

Groberg thought that the best way to get and hold the viewer's interest was to start out with Joseph's death ("shooting the sheriff in the first chapter," as it were). Then he showed the first clip of "American Prophet," challenging us to name the music used. It turns out that it was actually the original dirgelike tune of "Praise to the Man."

Throughout the dissertation, Groberg tried to defend "American Prophet" as an objective educational production. He noted with a bit of resignation that some people were calling it "propaganda," and "a puff piece." But throughout the development, he tried to stay with the "credible, scholarly" information instead of pandering to the salacious. I interpreted this as meaning that he didn't want to confuse the viewers by saying anything which might make them think less of the Prophet.

Despite his claims of trying to be objective, Groberg displayed his deep biases. In the eternities, he feels that he will have to gain Smith's permission to enter the Celestial Kingdom, and he admitted that his work was influenced out of fear that the Prophet might take him to task if he felt slandered. He also referred on several occasions to "promoting" Joseph Smith.

He had a few goals in mind while he created "American Prophet." First, he wanted "to tell the whole story." Apparently, he felt that the single line which admitted that "Smith himself took more than one wife" fulfilled this. I guess that, if you want to be technical, thirty-five is indeed "more than one." Second, he wanted to be kind in his portrayal of Emma. She had been belittled too often for not coming west, and he felt that she was too often belittled by those who had never faced challenges like hers.

I was surprised to learn that the Church had no direct editorial influence (again, to give the work more "objectivity"). However, I'm of the opinion that that they could have had some indirect influence (the ability to confiscate his temple recommend, for example). Richard Marriott, though, was involved with writing the script, and had some things to say about how his money was spent. Groberg initially intended not to mention the history of the Church after Smith's death, but Marriott insisted that the viewers know that the Church didn't die with its prophet. Which brings us to what I thought was the most interesting portion of the evening: The Screwing of the RLDS Church.

According to Groberg, the RLDS Church was absolutely vital in making "American Prophet" a success. They donated numerous historical items to the production which greatly added to its authenticity. To mention just a few: the King James Bible which Smith used to create the Inspired Version, the ring he wore to Carthage, and his Masonic apron (he mentioned in passing that anyone who had been through the temple would have understood how the apron was used in Masonic ceremonies. I kid thee not). He talked about how helpful the RLDS were, and how when he was among them, he felt like he was among brothers and sisters. But when he showed the epilogue, the narration didn't even mention the RLDS Church. Almost as though he heard the question banging around in my head, he took up the subject again. He cited the necessity of a very short epilogue, and said that he didn't wish to confuse the viewers. After all, if he mentioned the RLDS, he would also have to talk about the Rigdonites, the Strangites, and innumerable other factions. He said himself that many people in the RLDS Church have crossed him out of their list of top ten favorite people.

He also called the RLDS Church "a dying organization." I don't remember the exact context, but if anyone can think of a context where this would be a compliment, you have a better imagination than I.

Groberg admitted that doing the Smith story wasn't the perfect career move for a budding PBS filmmaker. But he chalked it up as a small sacrifice he was honored to make for the Church. His next project is to document the building of the old and new Nauvoo temples. He says that he will then back away from doing LDS projects for a while. In closing, he said that nothing in his research caused him to doubt Joseph Smith's calling as a prophet.

Despite the speaker's claims, "American Prophet" is a superficial piece of propaganda, designed with an eye towards ennobling Joseph Smith in the eyes of the audience. Groberg's claim that he avoided salacious material and stuck to "credible sources" is not true. Instead, he avoided damning material and issues which would cause anyone to question Joseph Smith's prophetic mission. I believe that a truly objective review of Smith's life would have -- at a bare minimum -- brought up a few of his money digging exploits and delved quite a bit deeper into Joseph's involvement with polygamy. Or at least avoided so many lingering close-ups of Smith's eyes. I have no respect for "American Prophet," or Groberg's claims of objectivity. PBS may as well have run "Called to Serve" and been done with it.

Ultimately, the refreshments made it all worthwhile. I would like to close by bearing my testimony that Mrs. Fields makes the best cookies in the known universe.


Copyright 2000
by Bryce Anderson