The Salt Lake Tribune’s Coverage of the Cancellation of ‘Brokeback Mountain’

by MIRANDA A. KNOWLES

Ang Lee’s 2005 film, Brokeback Mountain, portrayed  two cowboys, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar (performed by Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger), who showcased their “forbidden” love. The film created controversy all over the world — including in Utah.

According to ads in the Deseret Morning News and Salt Lake Tribune, Brokeback Mountain was scheduled to play at 12:45 p.m., Friday, January 6, 2006, at Megaplex 17 at Jordan Commons. But the previous night, the film was pulled from its schedule and replaced by another film after the owner of Megaplex 17, Larry H. Miller, learned that the film was about two gay cowboys. The film’s cancellation brought up public debate all over Utah. From January 6, 2006, to January 31, 2006, The Salt Lake Tribune’s coverage of the cancellation showed both sides of the controversy and the power of communication as it shapes public debate.

Findings

The Brokeback Mountain vs. Larry H. Miller controversy began during a KCPW-FM interview with Miller and Jonathan Brown. The interview on the Salt Lake City public radio station was done on Thursday, January 5, 2006, the day before the film was released in theaters, and aired the next day. An article by Sean P. Means and Sheena McFarland published in The Salt Lake Tribune on January 7 discussed the interview between Miller and Brown. According to the article, Brown said during the interview, “Miller was unaware of the storyline of Brokeback Mountain … until Brown described it to him Thursday.”

The Salt Lake Tribune’s Brandon Griggs also discussed Miller and Brown’s interview in his article, published January 11. The article said Miller’s initial response to booking the film was because the film had received seven Golden Globe nominations. Miller saw this as a sign of its “potentially broad appeal.” Toward the end of the radio interview Miller stated,“It is possible that the content of this [film] … is offensive enough to a large enough segment of the population that this is one that slipped by our screening process. Maybe I’ve been a little naive and not paid proper attention to it and let it slip through the cracks. If I have, then I made a mistake.”

Nothing in the interview made it sound like Miller would take matters to the extreme and completely cancel the film before it began playing. The interview made it sound like Miller would first see how audiences reacted to the film. If there was a negative response, then he would pull the film from showing. However, two hours after the interview, Miller canceled the show from playing.

This cartoon, by the Salt Lake Tribune's Pat Bagley, appeared . Used with permission.

This cartoon, by the Salt Lake Tribune‘s Pat Bagley, appeared in the paper on January 10, 2006. Used with permission.

The Salt Lake Tribune’s website posted an update on the cancellation shortly after the decision to pull the movie from theaters appeared. The update, posted on January 6, stated, “The Megaplex 17 announced it was pulling the film late Thursday afternoon. The change-of-heart came too late to remove the title from the theater’s ads in today’s Salt Lake Tribune”

The update was the beginning of a media frenzy that included numerous editorials, columns, and letters to the editor. Of the articles published, most focused on Miller’s lack of response, how the film was doing in award season, the business aspect of the cancellation, the world’s reaction to the cancellation, and what the film was about — love. The issues at large, such as morals, civil liberties, and press bias were brought up through countless letters to the editors.

Means and McFarland were among the first journalists to report on the cancellation. In their article, published January 7 and titled, “‘Brokeback’ gets boot,” they discussed the details of the cancellation and what Focus Feature (the production company of the film) had to say about it. The article also interviewed Carol Adams about her reactions to the film’s cancellation. The local woman wanted to see the film and was saddened to learn that it had been canceled.

Articles also discussed  negative public relations, Miller’s continuous silence on the issue, and of course the world’s reaction. According to Lesley Mitchell’s article, published in The Salt Lake Tribune on January 12, “Miller’s silence has helped give the story international appeal.” Another article by Griggs, published January 15 and titled, “‘Brokeback Mountain’: Why all the fuss?,” discussed the huge reaction to the film and the cancellation. This article is the most blunt of any article published in The Salt Lake Tribune because Griggs stated the hard truth on why the film was pulled from the schedule: “Men having sex.” Griggs explained that the homosexual relationship was the reason why people were getting so upset. Griggs also addressed hypocritical morals when  he wrote, “How is a gay love story more morally offensive than other movies — such as ‘Hostel,’ a horror film that shows sadists fulfilling their depraved fantasies by paying to torture other people; or the stoner comedy ‘Grandma’s Boy,’ which features drug use in almost every scene — now playing at Miller’s theaters?” His questions and bluntness were met with countless letters on the matter by Utah’s citizens.

Similarly, Griggs’ article, “‘Brokeback’ squelch has spotlight on Utah again,” published January 11, discussed the world’s reaction and Heath Ledger’s. Ledger was quoted as saying, “It’s all just really unnecessary” and “Personally I don’t think the movie is [controversial], but I think maybe the Mormons in Utah do. I think it’s hilarious and very immature of a society.” Griggs also reported, “Articles about the snub have made international headlines. NBC’s Jay Leno and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann joked about it on the air Monday night.” Steven Oberbeck’s article, “Miller’s move: shrewd or rash?,” published January 13, quoted Paul Mero of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think-tank in Salt Lake City. Mero stated, “Considering the conservative nature of our population, I’m sure a lot of people think: We’ll, it’s [Millers’] business and he’s entitled to do with it what he wants.”

The cancellation was something to talk about, and Utah’s citizens made sure their voices were heard. The letters were short, blunt, and very opinionated. One Salt Lake Tribune reader, Karla G. McGuigan, said the decision was an “encroachment into American citizens’ rights to civil liberties.” However, another reader, Bret A. Stapley, responded with, “Larry H. Miller is a private business owner who decides what is best for his own business. This is not a case of ‘government censorship’ or a civil liberty violation.”

Robert Seifert also questioned Larry H. Miller’s morals in a letter titled, “Miller’s moral compass.” Seifert, like Brandon Griggs, brought  up the hypocrisy of playing Hostel and not Brokeback Mountain. Seifert stated, “To sum up, pulling ‘Brokeback Mountain’ tells young people that being gay is unacceptable, so not pulling the movie ‘Hostel’ (being shown in the same theater complex) sends the message that torturing and mutilating other human beings is all right.” Harry A. Rodes disagreed in his letter, titled, “Morally correct decision”: “I would like to call on moral-minded people in Utah to actively support Miller’s businesses, especially his movie theater, to show the state and the country that there are still some people who have not given in to societal pressure to accept that which is immoral. He should be praised, not condemned.”

Readers also began saying that The Salt Lake Tribune was biased toward the gay community. Morgan T. Beach wrote in a letter titled, “Tribune’s gay bias,” published January 17: “I wonder how  many favorable articles and commentaries you would devote toward a movie of the same caliber, romanticizing the polygamous lifestyle.” The same day another Salt Lake Tribune reader, JoAnn Nokes, sent in a letter titled, “Get on with Life.” Nokes wrote, “Decisions are made daily. So accept it and let’s get on with life.”

Though The Salt Lake Tribune did indeed publish positive reviews for the film, it was not the only newspaper in Utah to do so. According to a journal article published in August 2008 by Brenda Cooper and Edward C. Pease, Brokeback Mountain was rated positively by several Utah newspapers. The article stated, “Despite the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (LDS) position that homosexuality is a sin and that practicing homosexuals may be excommunicated, the church-owned daily newspaper, the Deseret Morning News, gave the film three and a half stars out of four, and The Daily Herald of Provo, Utah — home of the LDS-owned Brigham Young University — also reviewed Brokeback positively.”

Conclusion

Utah’s reaction to Larry H. Miller’s decision to pull Brokeback Mountain from his theatre was one of great debate. The divide between Utah’s views on heterosexuality, ethics, morals, and business standards was showcased through the great response of Utah’s citizens. In 2009, Cooper and Pease published another article on the topic of Brokeback Mountain. The article, published in Western Journal of Communication, discussed how newspapers framed the controversy over the film. Cooper and Pease’s study found that of the 188 Brokeback-Miller items published during January 6, 2006-February 2006, 55 percent opposed the cancellation of the film and 45 percent  defended the cancellation. The study also found that 153 letters were published statewide. Of the 153, 48 percent were pro-Miller, and 52 percent were anti-Miller. Of those 153 letters, 34 were published in The Salt Lake Tribune. My research, along with Cooper and Pease’s research, proves that Utah was greatly divided on the issue. People discussed the film’s cancellation and topics related to Miller’s decision, including morals, business practices, civil liberties, press bias, and the amount of attention devoted to the issue.

Miranda A. Knowles is a senior at The University of Utah. She is majoring in communication and minoring in sociology.

Sources

JoAnn Nokes, “Get on with life,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 17, 2006, A8.

Morgan T. Beach, “Tribune’s gay bias,” The Salt Lake Tribune. January 17, 2006, A8.

Brandon Griggs, “Why all the fuss?,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 15, 2006, D1.

Harry A. Rodas, “Morally correct decision,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 15, 2006, AA2.

Robert Seifert, “Miller’s moral compass,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 13, 2006, A12.

Steven Oberbeck, “Miller’s move: shrewd or rash?,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 13, 2006, A1.

Brandon Griggs, “‘Brokeback’ squelch has spotlight on Utah again,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 11, 2006, A1.

Bret A. Stapley, “Simple as That,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 11, 2006.

Lesley Mitchell, “Media pros say silence on pulling gay movie gives the story legs,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 11, 2006.

Karla G. McGuigan, “Denial of Civil liberties,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 10, 2006.

Sean P. Means and Sheena McFarland, “‘Brokeback’ gets boot,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 7, 2006, A1.

“Update: Miller’s theater pulls Brokeback mountain,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 6, 2006.

Cooper, Brenda and Edward C. Pease. “Framing Brokeback Mountain: How the popular press corralled the “Gay Cowboy Movie.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 25, no. 3 (Aug. 2008): 249-273.

Cooper, Brenda and Edward C. Pease. “The Mormons Versus the ‘Armies of Satan’: Competing Frames of Morality in the Brokeback Mountain Controversy in Utah Newspapers.” Western Journal of Communication 73, no. 2 (April-June 2009): 134-156.

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