"Praise the Lord," the sixth-season premiere of the PBS "Frontline" series, is not just another round of Bakker-bashing. An inquiry into the fall more than the rise of TV evangelist Jim Bakker's PTL empire, the report concentrates on the failure of government agencies to act even as evidence of a biblical-scale scam mounted in federal files.
This was long before Jessica Hahn began her national "woman wronged" tour.
The program, at 9 tonight on Channel 26, points the finger at the Federal Communications Commission, the Justice Department and even the IRS for ignoring the clear warning signs coming out of PTL, which started as a puppet show and became a global satellite network. The perpetual solicitations for funds and a growing collection of worthy projects that somehow never made it past the drawing board were conspicuously ignored by official Washington.
Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker are not interviewed on the broadcast, but former FCC chairman Mark S. Fowler is, and what a pleasure to watch him squirm as he is told of former FCC lawyer Larry Bernstein's charges that Fowler or his people ordered a damaging report on PTL to be "watered down" after Bernstein submitted it. The report detailed numerous instances of potential fraud and "scores, perhaps hundreds, of false statements" Bakker made under oath.
The investigation was already underway when Fowler, Ronald Reagan's boy, took over in 1980. Bernstein says 134 items in his finished report were subsequently deleted by higher-ups (Fowler-ups?) at the FCC. "This is the first I've heard of that," Fowler says. "That's just not my style."
He is not very convincing. Former FCC commissioner Mimi Dawson refused to be interviewed about her reasons for suddenly changing her vote on the FCC inquiry from an anti-Bakker one to pro-, thus siding with Fowler. The program suggests that administration pressure was the reason, because of Reagan's political indebtedness to right-wing fundamentalists.
Producers William Cran and Stephanie Tepper raise their troubling questions crisply and directly, and Bernstein's cooperation helps a lot. But for all that, the most fascinating parts of the hour really are the excerpts from the old "Jim and Tammy" shows, like the sight of Bakker standing amid banks of ringing telephones and shouting, "Praise God, a thousand dollars!"
I was shouting that just the other day myself, but I was not on TV at the time.
There is a kind of heroism to Bakker's delusionary grandeur, as when he took to his PTL airwaves to blubber that he was being "harassed" by the FCC and suggested the commission was in league with the Devil. Interviewed outside an FCC hearing room, he plays the martyr with utter conviction. "It seems like they're trying to trick me," he says, his voice cracking. "I hope to God I never have to go through what I went through today."
In a clip from early in his TV career, Bakker's running around the stage of his PTL talk show, pleading for funds, and being fanned by a clinging minion. "You modernist preachers!" he bellows, tilting at one of the many windmills of his mind. "It's your fault I'm on TV!"
Whose fault was it really? It was TV's fault, for existing. The documentary offers brief background on other famous evangelists, including notorious charlatans, of the 20th century, but knowing the history doesn't prevent it from happening again. It has to happen a first time in each new medium. All television lacked was someone who knew how to exploit the hell out of it. As it were.
In its one hour, "Praise the Lord" may say more about the nature and perils of television than the PBS "Television" series does in eight.
It's neatly done and impossible to put down, but "Praise the Lord" does not answer one obvious crying need: a compleat TV history of the Bakkers and PTL, a kind of "That's Entertainment" of tear-stained televangelism that would tell the story purely through assembled PTL clips (and, of course, "Nightline" interviews). It could be fascinating, both as roller coaster psychodrama and as daft Americana.
The program, which could be two hours long or maybe eight, would take us through the Bakker story from beginning to end. But wait a minute, a thought occurs: Has it ended??? Some strange human impulse, perhaps perverse, compels one to say, "God, I hope not."