Remembering Jim Jones: Star-Telegram does thoughtful obit on its longtime Godbeat writer

"Absolute integrity."

"He brought no spin."

"Jim always tried to present both sides."

Every reporter would value those kinds of accolades in his obit. But especially, perhaps, in Jim Jones' specialty of religion news, a beat laced with minefields.

Jim served for more than 20 years on the Godbeat at the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth, then freelanced in the same specialty until his death last week at 79. Its obit on him is warm, thoughtful and instructive on the career of someone who did it right.

I didn't know Jim well, but I crossed paths with him now and then in my own job as religion editor for the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel.  He was a tall, lanky, mannerly Texan who would have fit well in a 1950s western movie.

I saw him also as a friendly, moderate man with an extreme eye for detail. When we shared a media tour of Jordan in 2000, he didn't just write that Pope John Paul II's plane arrived with a military jet escort; he asked what kinds of jets they were.

And by the 11 quoted sources in the Star-Telegram obit -- family, sources, colleagues, longtime friends -- many others saw him the same way.

"He was a great, solid reporter and a prince of a guy to be around," says Toby Druin, the retired editor of the Texas-based Baptist Standard. "He brought no spin."

Says Russell Dilday, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention: "I think Jim always tried to keep his partiality out of his reporting. He had convictions. He had his own ideas, but he wanted to report fairly."

The obit runs an amazing 1,700 words, amazing when many lede articles are shorter than that. And in the many details on Jim's life, it warrants the length.

* He published his own newspaper in the family basement before reaching high school, then edited his high school newspaper.

* He spoke as his high school's valedictorian, earning a master's degree at Texas Christian University, winning a fellowship at Oxford.

* He was athletic, playing a "mean game of tennis" and playing varsity basketball in high school.

In his main work of religion writing, Jim was a pioneer, starting the beat at the Star-Telegram in 1978. He even continued as a Godbeat freelancer after his retirement in 2000.

Judging by the obit, he took both an intellectual and a political interest in religion news:

At a time when most newspapers printed local church notes and pleasant church feature stories, Mr. Jones dug deeper.
He was watching closely in the late 1970s as the conservative wing of the Southern Baptist Convention began using secular political strategies to take control of the denomination. Being in Fort Worth, home to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and with Dallas and the large churches of the Mid-Cities nearby, Mr. Jones had a ringside seat to the years-long brawl and came to know most of the main players.
Much later, when the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth broke apart, he again was there to report.
Despite the hard feelings caused by the schism within the diocese, Mr. Jones was praised by both sides.

As the obit reports, Jim also wrote about Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, including several stories about the Dalai Lama. And he covered the mammoth outdoor Mass by Pope John Paul II in 1987.

Katie Sherrod, former metro editor of the Star-Telegram, says Jim could ask incisive questions without offending: “Matters of faith require a delicate touch. Jim could walk that line better than most."

The newspaper notes that he treated televangelists with the same respect as ministers at mainline churches -- and it quotes one of them saying so:

"Covering religious news is always a difficult assignment, and he rose to the occasion in the face of many controversies," said James Robison, founder and president of LIFE Outreach International and LIFE Today.
"It seemed he wanted, if possible, to be a peacemaker," Robison said. "When Jim talked to me, my family or staff, he represented them as accurately as possible. To me he was a great reporter, but above that, a great person of character."

Small wonder that Jim still found open doors as a freelancer, both among his sources and at the newspaper itself. In an era when propaganda is rebranded as "advocacy journalism," and religion news is often jobbed out to writers who don’t grasp it, Jim's life and career deserves to be remembered -- and emulated.

And the Star-Telegram deserves applause for not only running his work for nearly four decades, but for this excellent obit on him.

Photo: 1986 file photo of Jim Jones, from Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Used by permission.

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