Earlier on InkTank, my colleague was critical of CBS's coverage of the recent decision of a senator from Iowa to investigate TV evangelists. I also looked into the coverage, and found that, while CBS's coverage was a little thin, other news organizations have done some excellent work.
What are these secondary reasons? Several news organizations (print and tv) have done in-depth investigative reporting on these ministries and come up with some pretty scary stuff. Reports of lavish private jets, marble toilet seats, Rolls Royces, covertible Bentleys, plastic surgery, and plush mansions made Grassley a little skeptical about how these organizations are using their donated funds.
In the actual letter sent to the six evangelists, Grassley says,
Recent articles and news reports regarding the possible misuse of donations made to religious organizations have caused some concern for the Finance Commitee.
The St. Louis Post Disptach published a series of articles on Joyce Meyer's ministry in 2003, questioning the organization's use of funding. Now, Meyer publishes her annual reports online, so that the donors know their money is financing the church and not a new car. Television documentaries about Benny Hinn and the possible scandal in millions of dollars of donations also contributed.
This is the evidence CBS decided not to cite.
The newspaper that really did the work was the Tampa Tribune. Within hours of the announcement from Grassley, the Tribune had a detailed, well reported story on their website. Links to the actual letters sent to the preachers and statements made by the Senator's office were included.
How did they get this information so quickly? They already had it from their investigation of Paula and Randy White in May 2007. In an article of over 4,000 words, the research team at the Tribune interviewed donors who felt jipped by the couple, members of the church, former employees, and reviewed audits and financial statements. The journalists discovered that the masters and doctoral degrees Randy White claims to have are false. They found Tampa residents that have given thousands of dollars to the ministry without receiving the promises made to them.
They took an in-depth look at the couple who created a mega church in Florida's fastest growing urban area.
At the foundation of it all is Without Walls, a church that claims 23,500 members on two campuses and nearly $40 million in donations and other revenue last year. It, too, has undergone a transformation. Appearances and money - giving it and getting it - have become a focus.
The investigative report was an excellent source of information. It was perhaps even the push that came to shove Grassley's decision to investigate non-profit ministries. How Woodward and Bernstein of the Tribune.
I find this rather intriguing, seeing as how the St. Petersburg Times, its number one competitor, is known for its ability to do good pieces of investigative journalism. Seems that the Tribune is giving the Times a run for its money.
I do think this story is significant. It's significant because news organizations played their role in keeping public figures accountable. It's significant because journalists motivated the U.S. government to take action. It's significant because it raises questions about the integrity of evangelical Christian leaders. It's significant because the U.S. government is regulating how ministries use their money, which raises big questions about the line between church and state.
[Photos of Whites from the Tampa Tribune.]