The Media and the Jonestown Suicides

(Cressida Rigney’s article about writing this paper is here.)

While a postmodern world has in essence served to blur the lines of morals and ethics, humans naturally sway one of two ways when assessing a situation: is it good or is it bad? This is of course is an oversimplification, but it is illustrative of the process a historian undertakes when constructing a history. No matter how objective they attempt to be it must be understood that the objective history promoted by Von Ranke is not possible (this lack of objectivity is shown in resources detailing the case of the Jonestown massacre in which a cult led by Reverend Jim Jones committed a mass suicide of 918 people.[i])

Instead, as E.H. Carr said, “[the] element of interpretation enters into every fact of history” and one must “know the historian”[ii]. Carr’s statements bring into question the very nature of the historian. Is a historian strictly, as G.R. Elton argues, “the man who has learned his job [and has] grasped that research means assimilating into oneself the various and often very tiresome relics of the past,” or is it merely he who interprets the past in a lasting manner? The historian is constantly in danger of not only the pitfalls of unreliable sources but also, according to Christopher Blake, “accidental equivocation through the vagueness of ordinary words,” therefore a key point of the challenges media puts to objective history is the language form used.[iii] In the postmodern world the historian is no longer merely the published academic or amateur but also the historical fiction author, the student and the media. As a journalist records an event presenting a specific bias, it becomes a source to be used years later as a method of regaining information. Therefore it can be argued that the media is the historian of the postmodern world. In this capacity, the media is biased both with the views of the individual who constructs the history and in terms of the prevalent attitude of society in terms of the event they are recording. This bias is detrimental to the responsibilities of an historian and is problematic for the representation of information as it challenges the quest for objective history. This bias is evident in the case of the Jonestown massacre, an event which shocked the western world and fuelled a frenzy of media reports, which supposedly revealed the “truth” of the situation and provided the sensationism that attracts humans.

While extensive psychoanalysis has been undertaken in relation to James Warren Jones (who had, according to Tim Reiterman, “a way of spinning words and a power to his voice”[iv]), it is essentially the swathes of relevant media that form the basis and consequently shape the public’s assessment of the Jonestown tragedy. The case was typical media fodder, dramatic, fatal, fanatic and absurd, the story of a man Time Magazine has named Humanitarian of the Year responsible for the death of a congressman, three members of his entourage and 914 innocent people. It was deemed a travesty and the public refused to believe something so terrible could happen in their society.

Firstly it is necessary to identify the issues that arise with the credibility of the media as a form of historical communication especially with current affairs. Bias is a developed and encouraged part of the media industry, a Fox News Executive told Advertising Age,[v] “If you go out and say that you are a liberal network, you are cutting off your potential audience, and certainly your potential advertising pool, right off the bat.” This illustrates the major fault of the media: it is a finance-based industry. The independent element of academia which is present in the study of history is not a necessity for the media. Individual media entities (newspapers, television channels and radio) have recognised bias which helps select and attract a niche audience. However this selection of information creates issues when the media is accepted as historian in the modern world. The restrictions of the media are prolific most importantly that the media is first and foremost an industry and also that the resources produced by the media do not have the advantage of time and research. Instead they are completed for a deadline often no more than 12 hours after and this leads to heavily opinionated sources. Ken Silverstein,[vi] a well respected editor went so far as to claim that “‘Balanced’ coverage plagues American journalism…. ‘Balanced’ is not fair, it’s just an easy way of avoiding real reporting… and shirking our responsibility to inform readers” and thereby demonstrates the incompatibility of objectivity with media as historical communication.

Jonathon Gormon wrote that a “[h]istorian’s central ethical responsibility is that they ought to tell the objective truth.”[vii] The media falls outside this requirement as it is not a recognised historian’s opinion, however in the postmodern world of the 21st century the media is the first port of call for information on recent and past events but the culture of the media is conflicting to the purpose of history. Therefore when using the media as historical communication great care and attention must be paid to the context of the source. In correlation to the rise in popularity of media-based history has been the steady decline of objective history due to the consumerist media industry.

In the case of the Jonestown Massacre, other resources act as a more reliable source. The discovery of what has become known as the Jonestown Audiotape Project was made in Guyana. Summarised by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, approximately 950 tapes are in the process of being transcribed by Fielding McGehee . According to the Jonestown Institute “the transcripts are unedited.”[viii] The purpose of the tapes themselves are unclear, but when a Jonestown survivor and former Peoples Temple member was contacted in relation to the tapes, she wrote “the bottom line about Jim Jones is that he was infatuated with his own power and his own eloquence…..even before he got increasingly insane, he wanted to save his voice and his speeches.”[ix] While Laura Kohl stressed that this is her personal opinion, it is clear, from the multitude of newspaper articles from the time of the tragedy, that this opinion was shared by many and with good reason. As the FBI slowly released the Jonestown Tape Archive to the public, the media pounced on the new information using fragmented quotes to fill up their articles and according to The Evening Independent “about four minutes [of tape] were played today on the network’s Today show.”[x] It was primary material that could fuel the public’s desire for sensationalism.

The tapes allowed for a clearer picture to be made of the Jonestown situation. For a professional historian it is likely that with the inclusion of this sort of source a level of objectivity could be attained. However, their use by the media did the opposite as the tapes and transcripts were no longer a source in their own right but instead were utilised as a source to back up an opinion piece. The American media was predetermined to be biased against People Temple due to very public sympathies shown by the Temple to the USSR (the community sang the Soviet National anthem nightly[xi]) at a time when the Cold War had created high levels of tension between the two superpowers. These sympathies were due to the socialist nature of the community. Jones would speak openly against any country or individual who was anti-Soviet. He had exaggerated views on his relationship with the Soviet Union even once saying “And the Soviet Union was so brave, that they would even risk a nuclear confrontation, by saying, ‘Hands off of Peoples Temple.’ When the good leaders were out, and they were trying to kill us off here, they said, ‘Hands off, because the Soviet Union is watching what happens to Jones and his people. They’re our friends, and we want nothing to go wrong with them.'”[xii] This level of explicit soviet support was an immediate black mark on the Temple’s representation in the American media and added a new barrier to an objective analysis of the events of Nov 18th 1978.

The modern form of historical communication is not limited to immediate media items (newspaper articles, radio broadcasts etc) but also falls in the ever growing genre of historical film whether documentary or fictional. Although historical cinematography does promote the study of history in an amateur fashion, it also provides a heavily subjective historical analysis as opposed to the ideal, yet increasingly unattainable objective history. The 2007 TV Documentary Jonestown: Paradise Lost is an example of a new, emerging subgenre of historical and media communication, the docu/history (documentary/history). Despite the pseudo-academic tones of the documentary segments (a series of interviews), Jonestown: Paradise Lost is tainted by its nature as a form of entertainment. The critique that historical entertainment provides more information about the society it was created in than about the society it depicts is entirely true of the documentary/history. Released on television, it was destined to have a far broader audience than a theatre release. However, the nature of this broader audience affects the tone of the project. Release to a conservative American audience hinders the objectivity of the documentary. While the elements of recreation serve as entertainment, they distract somewhat from the task. The value in the documentary as a source lies in the interviews undertaken with Stephan Jones, Sherwin Harris and Vernon Gosney because they come from within the event being reported. Stephan Jones in particular shed a new evaluation of his father with poignant and insightful comments. Stephan Jones reiterates his father’s manipulative tendencies “a guy like my dad found out what you wanted to hear and showed it to you, whatever you were looking for or running from or running toward, Dad had an uncanny ability to hook into that. It’s exhilarating and attractive. Once you’re hooked it’s hard to be unhooked.”[xiii] This sort of source is fundamental to the construction of an accurate history as it incorporates a series of judgements from witnesses that allow for an informed judgement of the cult to be made.

The rejection of a bizarre and unconventional cult that had socialist tendencies and challenged the American Dream by assassinating Congressman Leo Ryan was ultimately the popularised image that would be promoted by the US Media. Demonisation of not only Jim Jones but the entire cult occurred. Laura Kohl is positive that Jones was the cancer of the Temple, saying “I would have moved Jim out of the position of making any decisions for people and have the other leadership in Jonestown continue the project.”[xiv] Many early articles on the Peoples Temple depict a socialist paradise on earth. However, ex-Temple members have been vocal about the unhealthy atmosphere created by what eventually became Jones’ reign of terror especially in terms of sexual abuse. Al Mills said a secretary would organise sexual liaisons. “She would call up and say, “Father hates to do this but he has this tremendous urge and could you please…”[xv] Other records of abuse included being “whipped or beaten with paddles for [minor] infractions” and psychological conditioning including records found that Jones trained his followers on how to respond to reporters and this was witnessed by Congressman Leo Ryan who “expressed a few reservations. He found some of the people he interviewed unnaturally animated.”[xvi] A close affiliation with the Guyanese government (supposedly due to a relationship between member Paula Adams and Laurence Mann – Guyanese ambassador to the United States [xvii]) made not only Temple members but also local Guyanese people wary of Jones. One local man, described as a guard is quoted as saying “We really hate those people. Reverend Jones should have died a long time ago.”[xviii] The levels of abuse and manipulation were so far removed from socially acceptable behaviour that immediately an objective record of these actions is rendered impossible.

While objective history is an unattainable goal due to context conditioning of the historian, the development of a more objective history should be within the grasp of history. However, the increasing influence of the media as a form of recognised historical communication has played havoc with this development.

The role of the media as a form of historical communication highlights the impossibility of an “objective history.” The Jonestown suicide (massacre) was an historical event where media viewpoints provided the dominant form of historical record. The media’s market-driven sensationalism influences the selection and presentation of material. This is a reminder that to some extent all forms of historical communication are shaped by subjective rather than objective forces, thereby challenging the possibility of the development of an objective history.


[i] Ross, Rick. The Jonestown Massacre Feb 2001.

[ii] Carr, E.H. What is History? 1961.

[iii] Blake, Christopher. Can History be Objective? New Series Vol 64 No 253 Jan 1955.

[iv] Interview with Tim Reiterman, Time Magazine.

[v] Fox News Executive to Advertising Age, 10/13/2003.

[vi] Silverstein, Ken, Editor of Harper’s Magazine, Washington.

[vii] Gormon, Jonathon. Historians and their Duties.

[viii] San Diego State Library Uploads Hundreds of Temple Tapes as mp3s.

[ix] Email between Cressida Rigney and Laura Kohl, Thu 30/06/2011 12.45 pm.

[x] Evening Independent, Nov 24 1978, Charles Krause and Laurence Stern.


[xii] Q933.

[xiii] Jonestown: Paradise Lost, TV, 2007.

[xiv] Interview with Laura Kohl, NPR News, Robert Siegel, November 17, 2003 (25th Anniversary of Jonestown).

[xv] Los Angeles Times quoted in Calgary Herald, December 5 1978.

[xvi] Both quotes from “Cult of Death: The Jonestown Nightmare,” Time Magazine, December 4 1978.

[xvii] “Remembering Jonestown,” Stabroek News, November 22, 1998, and obituary for Laurence E. “Bonny” Mann.

[xviii] Evening Independent, Nov 24 1978, Charles Krause and Laurence Stern.