A Challenge to the Media on the Jonestown Story: An Editorial

May 29, 2011 was a wonderful day, full of reconciliation and finality, of laughter and tears, of stories and memories and insights. It was a day for final goodbyes to the people of Jonestown, to be sure, but it was also a day for hellos, for rekindled friendships, for new connections.

The people who addressed the gathering during the service spoke many names not often heard in conversations about Jonestown: Joe Helle, Poncho Johnson, Roosevelt Turner, Mona Young, Malcolm Carter, Steve Addison, Dan Kutulas, Joel Cobb. And once – but only once – someone spoke the name of Jim Jones.

Photo by Rex Morningstar
But you wouldn’t know it from some of the media coverage. The television cameras were there, and the reporters listened to the same words from the podium as everyone else, but when it came time to filming, they all focused on a single name.  “The name of Jim Jones on a new memorial…” “A gathering at a memorial which includes the name of Jim Jones…” Story after story led with words of division, as if trying to stir up drama for an event that needs no extra drama.

You don’t have to wonder too much about why former members of Peoples Temple and relatives of the Jonestown dead are a little reluctant about speaking to the press. The ones who did approach the TV reporters – the ones who pointed out that the day was about 918 names, not one – were described in one news account as “hecklers.” The people who consented to interviews weren’t asked about their loved ones in Jonestown, but about the man who led them to their deaths.

02-36-bishop_jonesAnd then there’s the willful misrepresentation. What else can you call it, when a picture appeared in several newspapers that focuses on the name of “Bishop Jones”? There’s only one inference you can draw from the photo – the people of Peoples Temple still worship their reviled leader! – but the photographer who took the picture and the photo editors who ran it across the wire services knew it was false. Yes, there is a “Bishop Jones” … except he’s the 13-year-old whose full, uncropped and unedited name is “James Arthur ‘Jimbo’ Bishop Jones,” and he’s right next to the man of the hour, the devil incarnate himself, “James Warren Jones.”

The media prides themselves on challenging sacred institutions, old beliefs, myths, and unfounded rumors. Perhaps, after 33 years, it’s time for the media to challenge themselves on the telling of this story.