I was a film researcher when I lived in France between 2003 and 2005, and one of my assignments was a feature-length TV documentary about the tragedy at Jonestown. As I described in my previous article, my understanding of Peoples Temple became very different from that of my employers, and I eventually left. I have since returned to the United States. As time passes, however, I find I cannot separate myself from the tale of Peoples Temple. When someone asks me how France was, I start describing Guyana after a few sentences.
One of many times when I have revisited the historical information was when I read Wikipedia’s entry on Jonestown. I had read it while researching the film, but I thought little of it, because it had even less information than I did. A few months ago, I returned to the on-line encyclopedia with the understanding that millions of people use it, and whatever they offer about the Temple will be accepted as gospel by most of their readers. I also had an interest because Wikipedia’s editors include many anarchists, and I happen to be an anarchist.
Wikipedia bills itself a “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” and I do mean anyone. There are plenty of (enforced) rules and writing formulas to follow, but the essential democracy is very real. It has gotten a lot of attention in the national media, and is considered to be almost as accurate as its formalized counterparts. (Paid encyclopedias like Britannica offer contributions by the scholars of a given field, and great care is taken to choose only topics that deserve attention. This makes for a relatively non-democratic or elitist process.)
When I first looked at the entry for Jonestown, though, I got pretty hot under the collar. My assignment as a film researcher was the visit of Leo Ryan and the scene at the airstrip, and I was shocked by how truncated and inaccurate the Wiki entry was. They had Larry Layton killing (rather than wounding) people, they had the Cessna flying off with film footage, and they spelled Tim Reiterman’s name wrong in the bibliography.
The Wikipedia entry also has the tendency to focus on conspiracy theories, giving a separate section for the whole laundry list. I almost feel sorry for them, since I thought such theories were important when I first began researching the subject.
The most galling section was (and still is) called “popular culture references.” This is a long list of songs by punk bands, movies, and other trivia that made reference to the tragedy over the years. Here’s one that I choose randomly:
Vagina Dentata Organ issued a picture-disc LP named ‘The Last Supper,’ a compilation of recordings of Jones’ sermons, as well as the tape recordings from the Jonestown Massacre. This release was issued in an edition of 913, one for each victim of the tragedy.
In other words, the entry was ignorant of almost everything pertaining to historical facts, and yet they considered every whisper of conspiracy and every lousy little garage performance to be noteworthy.
I wrote a long note in the discussion page called “let me count the mistakes,” which was welcomed with some caution by a Wiki editor. I was encouraged to contribute what I know, but I was also schooled in the Wiki process, which does not allow for “original research.” There I was, unarmed among the rabble. So I put my skills in argument to work. I wrote, from memory, a new section on the Ryan visit and the airstrip shooting. In the discussion page, I stated how I came into the information, even as I acknowledged that I no longer possess the stack of books and the interview footage that had informed me while researching the film. I waited for the section to be deleted, but it was only edited slightly –at first. About a month later I sent in another section, called “mass murder suicide,” but even these section-titles change regularly. Again, the section has survived as of this writing, but it has sustained some editing. They removed the fact that the first defectors from Jonestown were Gay/Lesbian Temple members, on some argument that seemed unworthy of my attention.
I wrote only what I considered to be the bare bones of the story, and in the first missive, I left in a few lines that I did not positively know to be false. Since contributing to the website, I have come across some of my old reports to the filmmakers, which had been lost in cardboard boxes for some time, and these have given me more detailed information than I could remember earlier. I will continue to do my best at cleaning up the mess that Wikipedia has made of that time of sadness in Guyana.
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When I was about to send this essay to the jonestown report, I looked one more time at the Jonestown entry. Sure enough, it had been messed with again. The Concerned Relatives are mentioned once as “Concerned Citizens,” as though there were not enough confusion already in that particular area. Monica Bagby, who was wounded at the airstrip, has been pronounced dead by Wikipedia, even though she’s said to be alive today by people who know her (the confusion seems to lie in a change from “casualty” to “dead”). Larry Layton was still held in jail by Wiki when I first looked, but now they finally have him paroled in 2004, which is two years later than the fact.
It may take quite a while to clean up this Wiki-mess. Stay tuned all the time, because the story changes all the time!
(Robert Helms now lives in Philadelphia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)