The PTL Club

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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