(Un)Covering Jonestown, 25 Years Later

Just days before the 25th anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy in 2003, a veteran reporter from a local network news affiliate called me and blurted out his request: “I’m doing a 3-minute story on Jonestown, and I need a survivor to tell me how Jim Jones was tied in with the local political establishment, and another survivor to tell me about Jones’ charisma. Can you give me some sources?”

Little did this reporter know, he was continuing an unfortunate tradition of mishandling the story. Ever since November 18, “Jonestown” has been the subject of countless stories in print and broadcast media, from the sensationalistic coverage in the immediate aftermath, to retrospectives on major anniversaries and comparative analyses on the occasion of other “cult” disasters. But for all the ink and airtime that has been dedicated to it, the story has been altogether too narrowly construed.

It is challenging to find a mention of Jonestown in the mainstream media which doesn’t contain such phrases as “charismatic madman,” “Jones’ followers,” or “ordered their deaths.” In fairness, it must be said that there are only so many words that can be used to describe, say, the “ambush” at the Port Kaituma airstrip of Rep. Leo Ryan and several reporters who had gone to investigate conditions in Jonestown, or the “mass” nature of the tragedy. Still, much of the language used to describe Jim Jones, the people of Peoples Temple, and Jonestown itself is deeply interpretive.

Not just the fact of that interpretation but its uniformity is troubling. Alternative views – that the people of Jonestown sought to create a new society, that they were perhaps believers rather than followers, or that there are profound disputes over the meaning of coercion and free will – are all but ignored. With little more than just a few catch phrases, then, the news media have more or less uncritically accepted the conventional thinking about the very nature of the life and death of Jonestown. It has, in large part, been reduced to a simple morality tale about brainwashing or blindness, a reference a reporter may make in association with September 11 or Heaven’s Gate in order to effect a sort of ersatz erudition.

Thankfully, the news is not all bad, and it does seem to be getting better. In its coverage for the 25th anniversary, National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” broadcast an interview with survivor Laura Kohl, who spoke with palpable difficulty about the task of reconciling her positive experience in Guyana with the awful outcome. Her words – and her voice – spoke to the complexity of the issue which is so often missed in other treatments. An excellent report in the Los Angeles Times by Tim Reiterman – who was among the reporters visiting Jonestown on what became its last day – provided insight and compassion, without ever dipping into sentimentality. And there were other signs that perhaps the single greatest shortcoming in the coverage is slowly being rectified. Jonestown was 70% African American, and yet the story has been told primarily by white people from the inner circle. While still not proportionate to their numbers in Peoples Temple, the stories of African American survivors have been more in evidence in the press in recent years.

“You want to know how I think you should approach this piece?” I asked the reporter who called me that day. “Go the annual memorial service next Tuesday and ask a survivor to tell you their story, rather than asking them to fit into a story you’ve already got in mind.” This perspective came from my experience in working with Jonestown survivors on a long-form documentary film. The reporter pointed out, rightfully, that I have the luxury of time.

Still, I thought he was missing the larger point. I’ve been a radio reporter, and am familiar with deadlines and constraints on length. If he had time to tell a trite story that simply relayed the same-old same-old, then he had time to put together a piece that was compassionate, challenging, complex, anything new. Otherwise, why bother? To the extent that Jonestown is a case of unthinking allegiance, we as media-makers ought not be equally unthinking in accepting, and conveying, the received wisdom about so important an event.

(Paul VanDeCarr is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His other articles in this edition include Jonestown docudrama yields no easy answers and Doing Justice to Jonestown. His article about his film is at “After Jonestown” Production Closes. Paul can be reached through this website.)