Documenting a Network’s Role in the Jonestown Tragedy

NBC canceled Jonestown storyA Jack Anderson column from March 1981 which first broke this story appears here.

I begin to get anxious this time every year since 1978. For nine months that year I had been working on a series about the destructive cults. Peoples Temple was to be the centerpiece of this series even though the people who joined it weren’t cultists. They were sincere and loving people, looking – hoping – for a better life. Most people, if they remember November 18, 1978 at all, now think of Peoples Temple members as “crazy kooks,” which they weren’t.

I knew everything there was to know about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by June 1978, thanks to sources within the organization, Concerned Relatives and a journalist whose own print story was spiked. I had shot most of my investigation by that fall before the “revolutionary suicide,” which it wasn’t. It was murder for the most part.

My film, except for 18 minutes of the actual trip into Jonestown, is missing. That’s right, missing. Lost. How could NBC lose such valuable footage of an historical event of this magnitude? I personally screened almost three hours of footage of the trip inside Jonestown. Only one question that NBC reporter Don Harris asked in an interview with Jim Jones now remains. That reporter’s questioning I recall because I saw it and edited it for air, pushed the already demented, paranoid and drug addicted Jim Jones over the edge. Had he not questioned Jones so aggressively , might they all have survived? Possibly, even with Jones’ paranoia. An hour later the reporter, the congressman, two photographers and a Temple defector were dead on the airstrip at Port Kaituma. A few hours later, Peoples Temple was dead. How responsible was NBC for what happened? Was this why the footage “disappeared?”

They killed my story that fall , which would have alerted the nation and government agencies to the danger, perhaps stopping the trip or at least providing the Ryan party with security. Then they lost the fruits of their cowardice—the film that would have shown the world what really happened. A reporter anxious to make a score in an interview with an -out -of -control madman.

I have my theories. They spiked my story that fall without explanation soon after a banner headline appeared in a local New York newspaper saying “NBC Boss Threatened.” That president created Charlie’s Angels. He was an entertainer, not a newsman. I should have put it together then but I didn’t. I had come from CBS News with Walter Cronkite—a place where television networks didn’t cave under corporate pressure. And NBC was under cult pressure and corporate pressure from its new president. The alliance of destructive cults were threatening lawsuits and the lives of NBC staffers. Corporate management was threatening a weak news department at a time when it didn’t have strong, experienced leadership. Kill the series – end the problem. And they did. I got the news my story was spiked a few weeks before Jonestown and was banished until after the tragedy, when they needed someone to edit the dead cameraman’s material and make identifications for air.

What happened to the FBI copy of the NBC material put under lock and key by NBC lawyers? This website has been trying to find out for years. Will the truth ever come out? This is a story that must be told for three reasons. First, there’s the matter of accountability for 918 needless deaths. Second, there’s the issue of journalistic accountability. Those who made these fateful decisions at NBC are still alive as are the lawyers. Most important, at a time when the media is criticized for missing the truth about weapons of destruction and for its own lack of transparency, telling this story is not only a way to come clean but a cautionary tale for all news organizations.

I had hoped my series would stop Congressman Leo Ryan’s ill-advised trip or at least provide him with a security guard in case there was trouble. That never happened when they killed my story. A reporter, unfamiliar with my investigation, ran with it, went to Guyana and never spoke to me.

The most important story of my career was ripped from me – a story that could have saved Congressman Leo Ryan’s life, the journalists and Peoples Temple. Every fall I live with this. When will it end? Will the truth ever come out? Where is the footage that tells the real story of Jonestown and the death of Peoples Temple? Will the classified material – classified for another two years – ever end this story of journalistic and government incompetence?