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.
Bakker, whose co-host is second wife Lori, says stocking up on such survivalist merchandise could keep you alive amid the catastrophes -- earthquakes, hurricanes, war, famine -- that some Christians believe are signs that End Times are near.

Actually, the idea that people are stocking up on non-perishable foods in preparation for some calamity is hardly news for those of us who remember all the Y2K preparations and failed predictions. A lot of folks blame evangelical Christians for all that hype but remember, it was the secular media that first broke the story of a possible collapse of the worldwide computer network.

Now 78, with a white beard, Bakker is no longer the sunny, baby-faced preacher who co-hosted “The PTL Club” in the 1970s and ’80s with then-wife Tammy. She did the singing back then, often while shedding happy, mascara-tinged tears about Jesus.

The story then reminds us of what happened at PTL three decades ago

Everything came tumbling down in 1987, amid revelations that Bakker had had a 15-minute tryst and paid hush money to a young church secretary named Jessica Hahn. He later served in federal prison for nearly five years for PTL-related fraud…
More than 30 years after the fall of PTL, public records indicate that unpaid IRS tax liens against Bakker or against him and Tammy, who died in 2007, still add up to at least $5.5 million.
The question now: Has Bakker repented and found a genuine calling to help Christians prepare for the end times forecast in the Bible? Or is he stoking 21st-century fears – terrorism, climate change, war – to make money?

The article then adds that Bakker refused to talk with the Observer for the article and makes it clear that Bakker's still -- it would appear -- into it all for the money.

How’s Bakker’s show doing? Hard to say. His daily hour-long show from Missouri is carried via satellite on various Christian TV channels -- Daystar, Angel One, the Word Network -- and on a dozen or so local stations (though none in Charlotte). But there are no Nielsen ratings for Christian television.
Just as elusive: Information about how much money Bakker’s ministry brings in, how much it spends and how much he and his wife are paid.
Since Morningside is registered as a church, it isn’t required to file financial information with the IRS.

The piece then compares the Bakkers’ current ministry with what Jim and Tammy once had.

Take the building where he and Lori usually tape their show. Inside and out, Morningside Church looks like a smaller version of the Heritage Grand Hotel. (It has about 160 employees; PTL had more than 2,000.)
The hub of Morningside is Grace Street. Like PTL’s Main Street, it’s a faux town square with vintage-looking street lamps and old-timey-looking shops (like Grace Street Creamery and Morningside Beauty Salon). One addition: A 15-foot statue of Jesus.
A wooden plaque near the entrance of Morningside Church spells out Bakker’s signature line from the PTL years: “God loves you, He really does.”
On his show now, “Pastor Jim,” as he’s called these days, still signs off with that blessing.

Fortunately, the reporter (Tim Funk) has been at the Observer 28 years, so had the institutional memory as to what PTL used to be like. He also went to Blue Eye, the small Missouri town near the Arkansas border where the show is taped, to report on what Bakker’s current digs look and feel like.

From what he can tell of Bakker’s compound, the evangelist isn’t any more forthcoming about his compensation –- or repentant about his constant fundraising –- than before. Products are advertised for specific donation amounts at the bottom of Bakker’s TV screen during the show.

Charles Shepard, a former investigative reporter who anchored the Observer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of PTL in the 1980s, isn’t convinced Bakker has learned the hard lessons of those years. “If he were someone who had really seen the light,” Shepard said in a recent interview, “then he would be forthcoming about ... revenues and even his compensation.”
But Bakker brother-in-law Graham, who’s in charge of all the public spaces on the Morningside Church property, including the stores and restaurants, said those who need to know about the ministry’s finances do.
“We’re transparent with the IRS and the government,” he said “(And) our partners trust that their money is going to be used for what they designated it for.”

The reporter did his best with what he had, even though he was handicapped by Bakker refusing to talk with him. I have a feeling that an interview with the televangelist would not have revealed much.

To help you get ready, Bakker launched a second venture on Cyber Monday last November: A faith-based home shopping network that’s also based at Morningside. It, too, has survivalist supplies, ranging from 21-Day Detox Packages to 4-Way Powered Emergency Radios.

The one question I had after the piece was: Are people buying the survivalist gospel? Are they snapping up what Bakker has to offer? And where does Bakker’s network fare in comparison to others, such as CBN and TBN, whose founders are either dead or ailing, that began in the same era?

Is there a new breed of televangelist: Younger, more female and multi-ethnic? Folks like Joel Osteen, Paula White, T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn and a bunch of entrepreneurs from Africa come to mind.  

Also, do people even watch televangelists any more? They did 30 years ago, but I don't get the feeling that their combined ratings are any more than a blip today. Then again, Osteen's $55 million in book sales are coming from somewhere. 

Way too little reporting is out there these days about the current crop of televangelists and what they're up to, which is due to the paucity of religion reporters on the beat these days. Covering a televangelist takes up a lot of extra time and travel money, as I learned during the four months I put together this Washington Post story on Paula White last November. 

So I appreciate the time the Observer gave Funk to work on this package. Would that more newspapers would do so. There's plenty of material out there.

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