During its 19th-century struggles with Uncle Sam over polygamy and "holy murder," the LDS Church generally took a real beating in the nation's press at the time. When the church needed newspapers it didn't own in its corner, its agents got favorable publicity the old-fashioned way: They bought it. One of the main buyers was Mormon dynamo George Q. Cannon. As ordinary Utahns reeled from the economic effects of the so-called Utah War, Brigham Young sent Cannon east in September 1858 to handle "business pertaining to the press."
Young asked Thomas L. Kane, his non-Mormon ally in the East, to show Cannon the ropes. (Kane had already reported his success in creating "great confusion" in the press.) "Brother George has command of all the funds you may deem requisite for the accomplishment of his work," Young advised. That October, Young directed his business agent, Horace Eldredge, to "be wise and discreet," so that, along with Cannon and Kane, he could move the whole world but "no one will know who has done it."
Bribery was part and parcel of the news business in the Gilded Age, and sometimes it appeared the only way the LDS Church could get favorable press was to buy it. The federal government conducted a "judicial crusade" against polygamy in the 1880s that threatened the survival of Mormonism. This peril led to one of the most remarkable political alliances in American history.
Historian Edward Leo Lyman has documented a series of payoffs to American newspapers in 1887. The LDS Church desperately wanted statehood and was not happy with John W. Young, the church's agent in the East. The son of the dead prophet was unable to account for the considerable church funds he had spent buying good press without noticeable success, although he had secretly acquired The New York Globe.
The Saints turned to Alexander Badlam, whose Utah mines made him sympathetic to the church's predicament. Badlam, a non-Mormon, had substantial experience "securing newspapers" for Central Pacific railroad moguls such as Leland Stanford and C. P. Huntington. By July 1887 Badlam was successfully keeping newspapers "quiet." Badlam estimated it would cost $140,000 to buy enough press to secure statehood for Utah.
He got the green light and engineered an alliance with the Central Pacific, Standard Oil, Western Union and Jay Gould to use The Associated Press and their "enormous pull" in favor of the Mormons. Proposed payoffs ranged from $5,000 to $10,000 for The New York Times, The Chicago Times and The San Francisco Chronicle.
Papers in Chicago and St. Louis took the cash, but Deseret News editor Charles Penrose unhappily sent word The New York Times could not "be had for any amount of money." The scheme worked in part.
The plan was to convince the press the Mormon Church had stopped the practice of (if not the belief in) plural marriage. Soon, papers on-the-take switched from denouncing "crafty Mormons" to reporting that polygamy was all but dead in Utah. Salt Lake Tribune editor William Nelson (who as U.S. Marshal had supervised the execution of John D. Lee at Mountain Meadows) was quick to "sound the alarm" that it was a trick.
When a round of speakers at LDS Church conference in April 1888 praised polygamy and proved Nelson was right, the scheme collapsed. Badlam quit in disgust and most American papers went back to getting their Mormon news from The Tribune. As the French say: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
For details on 19th-century newspaper bribery, see Edward Leo Lyman's Political Deliverance.