Readers Show 'Big Love' For Utah Polygamy Beat

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By: Joe Strupp Brooke Adams' beat at the Salt Lake Tribune is not exactly like covering city hall, unless the mayor has three or four wives and more than a dozen children. That's because Adams, an eight-year veteran reporter at the Utah daily, covers polygamy -- and appears to be the only full-time reporter covering that subject at a U.S. newspaper.

"It is really intriguing," says Adams, 49, who had covered the lifestyle with other "family" issues until early 2006 when she went full time on the unusual assignment. The biggest surprise about her beat, she says, "is how committed people are to their beliefs and how complex it is. There is abuse that goes on, but there are also very happy families."

Web traffic data places the Tribune's "Polygamy" page near the top of the site's most popular offerings. "It is greater than the politics or education sections, the most popular page outside of sports and news," says Online Editor Manny Mellor. From July 2006 to June 2007, the page received nearly one million views.

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.

Although the full-time coverage actually began before the debut of the HBO series "Big Love," about a plural family, Adams says that has sparked more interest in the issue.

But 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, who is married and has three children, says the beat ranges from legal battles to profiles of plural life families and the issues they face. Recent stories have included a profile of a trust overseer for an FLDS group and an exiled polygamy sect member's effort to reunite with his family. "They are so protected and so sheltered," Adams says, an aspect that she adds is the toughest part of the job. "They don't want to tell you who is a wife, who is not. They give very good access to foreign media because they feel it is safe. But if you are right here in Utah, it is a much bigger challenge."

The reporter recalls one story she did on FLDS member Janet Warner, who runs a nursery in nearby Joseph, Utah. Adams got the idea for the story after she bought seeds for a garden and noticed the package came from Hildale. "It took a year to track the person down and another year to talk her into doing a story," she says. "It is hard to get people to open up."

Adams received a major break in 2006 while in British Columbia to report on an effort by Canadian officials to deport several wives of polygynist Winston Blackmore -- who has an estimated 15 wives and at least 100 children. She was granted the chance to spend an afternoon with Blackmore and his family.

"I had followed him for a year because he was affiliated with Warren Jeffs' group and had gotten kicked out of it," Adams recalls. Her piece mixed tales of Blackmore's children playing music with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's efforts to arrest him on various charges.

She believes that story helped her land her biggest inside piece to date, a July 3, 2007, profile of a Utah man identified only as "Gary," his three wives, and their 21 children. "I had known them for a while," Adams says. "When Big Love premiered, I put together a panel of people to view it, which had included Gary and one of his wives. Over time, they came to believe I could tell a fair story." Adams says she writes for both the polygamist and the typical Tribune reader.

The paper's "Polygamy" Web page also includes her blog, which she tries to update once a week. The site has a space for reader comments, which has to be monitored closely and was removed several times when comments turned into back-and-forth word battles. "It just became comments for and against polygamy, mean comments," says Mellor.

Adams has also become the go-to person for many national media outlets doing stories on the unusual lifestyle or the HBO drama, although she declines many interview requests. But she says the Big Love interpretation of the plural life is pretty close to reality.

Raised Catholic but "not practicing," Adams is often asked if she is a follower of the FLDS way. "I get asked a lot if I am married, single or vying to be a wife," she says. Her husband, Tom, has had to endure some strange elements of the beat. "He thinks it is way harder than any other beat I have had," she says, citing her need to give her home phone number out to FLDS members. "I want the door open and the accessibility. That has alarmed my husband at times."

She often receives inquiring calls from plural-life family members asking for information. Once, she says, her phone rang at 10:30 p.m., and on the line was an FLDS member who had seen a car accident and thought the driver looked like a fellow member.

Concerns about creating legal problems for FLDS members who are identified in Adams' stories are mostly alleviated, she says, due to the stance by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff that he will not prosecute polygamists. "So I don't feel like I am outing anyone," she says. "I don't think the fundamentalist community wants crimes to go on either, arranged marriages or forced underaged marriages."

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