Jim Bakker

Bias flashback: Should religious leaders risk talking to reporters? (A tmatt response)

Bias flashback: Should religious leaders risk talking to reporters? (A tmatt response)

The other day, our own Bobby Ross Jr. wrote a post that included a very strong dose of opinion from a reader. The headline on that post: "Why ignoring a reporter's call probably isn't the best media relations strategy for a religious leader."

As you can tell, this is a topic linked to an assumption, and a safe one at that: Many religious leaders are scared to talk to journalists.

Now, why might that be? Why the fear? Here's that reader comment, once again:

It boggles this Catholic’s mind that you are surprised that any of these pastors would talk to the reporter.

This blog has existed on the premise that the media, by and large, are hostile to any kind of religion. The hero of these pastors, President Trump, paints the press as the enemy rather than a guardian of the people’s right to know. And then you are surprised when that actually manifests itself in the real world.

Ah, what we have here is a failure to communicate.

You see, no one here thinks that the vast majority of news-media pros are "hostile to any kind of religion." To be blunt about it, many journalists don't care enough about religion to work up a decent case of hostility about the subject. Some journalists love some forms of religion and, well, aren't fond of others.

Also, apathy is not hostility. Ignorance is not hostility, either. Some editors are scared to try to cover religion. That isn't hostility, either.

Well, Bobby told readers that I might want to respond at some point. This is rather ironic, since I am currently in Prague, lecturing at the European Journalism Institute at the historic Charles University. My third and final lecture is relevant to this discussion: "The Four Biases that Shape Religion News Coverage."

The quickest way for me to share my thoughts on this complicated topic is to cut and paste a section of an essay that I wrote long, long, long ago for The Quill, published by the Society of Professional Journalists. So here goes.

After nearly two decades of studying this issue, in academic settings and while working in the media, I am convinced four different forms of bias are to blame for this media blind spot.

Update! Make that four-plus decades of studying this issue!

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Jim Bakker plus real estate plus the apocalypse plus zero new reporting equals WHAT?

Jim Bakker plus real estate plus the apocalypse plus zero new reporting equals WHAT?

Jim Bakker likes to build things.

In the old days be built really big things and news consumers with a long attention span will remember how that turned out. Click here for a recent news update.

Today he's building smaller things -- like Ozark cabins for the post-apocalyptic age. Buyers will need lots of Bakker approved religious-home furnishings, of course.

As you would imagine, there are people who want to write about that. The question is whether, in a social-media and Internet journalism age, WRITING about this topic actually requires journalists at a major newspaper in the Midwest to do any new REPORTING, other than with an Internet search engine.

Here's the Kansas City Star headline: "Televangelist Jim Bakker calls his Missouri cabins the safest spot for the Apocalypse." Read this story and count the online and streaming info sources. I'll start you off with the overture:

Televangelist Jim Bakker suggests that if you want to survive the end of days, the best thing you could do is buy one of his cabins in Missouri's Ozark Mountains. And while you're at it, be sure to pick up six 28-ounce "Extreme Survival Warfare" water bottles for $150.

Bakker, 78, made comments promoting his Morningside church community alongside his co-host and wife, Lori, on an episode of "The Jim Bakker Show," which aired Tuesday. The show is filmed there, near Branson.

Then there's a short flashback to the PTL Club days in Charlotte, with no attribution necessary. That's followed by a temptress Jessica Hahn update, care of reporting by The Charlotte Observer a few months ago. Then a bit more history, with no attribution.

Then we're back to information gained by watching the new Bakker show from Branson.

But wait. Read this next part carefully.

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Lessons from the past: Who is building a super-ministry in ruins of Jim Bakker's dream?

Lessons from the past: Who is building a super-ministry in ruins of Jim Bakker's dream?

As a former religion-beat guy in Charlotte, and a veteran of the Jim Bakker and PTL wars of the 1980s (click here for my flashback), I was -- of course -- very interested in The Charlotte Observer's lengthy update on the status of the old Heritage USA.

Here's the totally logical headline on this solid -- but narrow -- feature: "Jim Bakker’s theme park was like a Christian Disneyland. Here’s what happened to it." What's missing? Hold that thought.

As the story notes, Heritage USA was supposed to grow into a kind of Disneyland for charismatic Christians, but things fell apart before the 2,300-acre complex reached the roller coaster ride through heaven and hell stage of development. For those in need of a refresher on why there is this:

Construction had already begun by then on two other mega-projects: A sand castle with a 10-story turret that would house the world’s largest Wendy’s restaurant, and a high-rise hotel to be called Heritage Grand Towers. When finished, reported the Heritage Herald, a weekly newspaper for tourists and those living on the PTL property, the tower’s “elegantly furnished” 500 rooms would include 100 honeymoon suites “for couples who come to Heritage USA to renew their marriages.”
Two months later, Bakker suddenly resigned amid financial and sexual scandal. His plans were scrapped, the ongoing construction halted. Today, three decades after Bakker’s dreams gave way to a nightmarish spell of bankruptcy, lawsuits and prison, many of the magnets that once drew people to Heritage USA are long gone.

The architectural corpse that gets the most attention in this piece -- fittingly enough -- is Bakker's never-finished, never-occupied 21-story tower. It continues its slow decay, while the current owners dream of expanded ministries that sound eerily familiar.

This is the crucial part of the story that I hope Observer editors return to, in depth, in the future. Why? Well, I am biased because this is the part of the story that I kept writing newsroom memos about in the early 1980s, trying to convince editors that there was a national-level story at the foundation of the Bakker scandals.

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Same old song? The Charlotte Observer takes new look at Jim Bakker and his latest gospel

Same old song? The Charlotte Observer takes new look at Jim Bakker and his latest gospel

Long ago, The Charlotte Observer won a Pulitzer in 1988 for its groundbreaking reporting on the misuse of funds by the PTL television ministry. Thus, the folks who run that newsroom no doubt feel the need to keep readers updated on the doings of PTL founder Jim Bakker after a 31-year hiatus.

So it’s come out with an anniversary package detailing not only Bakker’s new calling in life but also a sidebar on a new book about PTL and a piece on whatever happened to Tammy Faye Messner, Bakker’s first wife. The main Observer stories on PTL’s problems broke in 1987 (you can our own tmatt about lots of the background on that). One year later in February 1988, Jimmy Swaggart’s empire fell due to his sexual sins.

It would be a whole other post describing what it was like being a religion reporter during those two years. I was at the Houston Chronicle and the Bakker-Swaggart scandals, plus Pope John Paul II’s 1987 swing around North America, ensured members of the religion-beat team got on the front page a number of times.

But that was then. Here’s what the Observer just wrote.

BLUE EYE, MO. -- Three decades after his PTL empire near Charlotte crumbled amid financial and sex scandals, Jim Bakker is back on TV with a different, darker message:
The Apocalypse is coming and you better get ready.
Ready to be judged by God, sure. But the main mission of “The Jim Bakker Show” -- broadcast from a Christian compound deep in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri -- appears to be to sell you fuel-less generators, doomsday guidebooks and freeze-dried food with a shelf-life of up to 30 years.

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Blast from the past: Charlotte Observer catches up with Jessica Hahn — yes, THAT Jessica Hahn

Blast from the past: Charlotte Observer catches up with Jessica Hahn — yes, THAT Jessica Hahn

You never forget certain names in the news — even though you may go years without hearing them.

I think of Pat Boone, who was a major celebrity decades ago but — at age 83 — is not nearly as well known to younger Americans. Boone spoke briefly at this year's Religion News Association annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., and joked that a fellow speaker told him, "I know who you are. I thought you died." (In case you're curious about Boone, read the interview I did with him at the RNA meeting.)

Just this week, the death of Cardinal Bernard Law — "the disgraced former archbishop of Boston whose failures to stop child molesters in the priesthood sparked what would become the worst crisis in American Catholicism," as The Associated Press described him — pushed him back into the headlines. Fifteen years ago, of course, Law was at the center of the clergy sex abuse scandal sparked by a Boston Globe investigation. At that time, I was religion editor at The Oklahoman, and I remember covering the June 2002 meeting in Dallas where then-Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating was appointed to lead a national review board charged with monitoring U.S. bishops' new policy on clergy sexual abuse. (Read Julia Duin's post on news coverage of Law's death.)

I've found that readers like "What ever happened to?" stories. They appreciate knowing — months or even years later — how life turned out for a particular newsmaker. We journalists, on the other hand, often neglect to go back and provide such updates. Generally, there is plenty of new news to keep us busy. 

Occasionally, though, reporters find intriguing stories in blasts from the past: A recent one comes courtesy of the Charlotte Observer's veteran religion writer, Tim Funk, who interviewed Jessica Hahn — yes, that Jessica Hahn.

If your response is, "Jessica who?" then you probably also wouldn't recognize a rotary telephone or have any clue about dial-up internet. 

Good news for you: Funk's story does an excellent job of providing historical background and context so that his story makes sense — and would be worth a read — even to those fresh to the story of Hahn and her relationship with disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker. (There's another name that will need no introduction to readers of a certain age. Read Terry Mattingly's 1996 column on Bakker's conspiracy theories.)

At the top of his Hahn story, the Observer writer gets right to the point:

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Old story of Marvin Gorman, Jimmy Swaggart's onetime accuser, shows that faith details matter

Old story of Marvin Gorman, Jimmy Swaggart's onetime accuser, shows that faith details matter

Until just recently, you'd have to have been a rather deep-in-the-weeds religion nerd to remember Pastor Marvin Gorman, a pentecostal preacher who, like the much-more-famous Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, was once affiliated with the much more mainstream Assemblies of God. 

Gorman, 86, who passed to his rest on January 4 in New Orleans, was one of the first, in 1987, to formally accuse Swaggart of adultery, and he had the photographic evidence to support the charge.

As the New Orleans Times-Picayune captured it:

Rev. Gorman was brought down in an epic feud that sullied the Pentecostal movement three decades ago. In 1986, Swaggart, a fellow Assembly of God televangelist based in Baton Rouge, accused him of adultery. Swaggart also helped blow the whistle on Jim Bakker, an Assembly of God televangelist in Charlotte, N.C., for an extramarital affair with a church secretary.
In response, Rev. Gorman circulated photographs of Swaggart and a prostitute at an Airline Highway motel in Metairie, leading to Swaggart's downfall, and he sued Swaggart for defamation. He won a $10 million award, although the parties later settled out of court at $1.85 million.
By this time all three men's ministries were in ruins. Rev. Gorman declared bankruptcy, Bakker went to prison and Swaggart's empire collapsed.

Those of us in or around the Godbeat in those days know how tumultuous a time it was. But it was long, long ago, and the media could be forgiven for having moved on to the latest prosperity gospel preacher who's set to pray at Donald Trump's inauguration, or something else more contemporary.

I believe, however, that it's important to remember the lives and works, good or bad, of those who've labored in the vineyards of faith, and thereby hangs, I would also suggest, a journalistic tale. 

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