Jonestown   Media’s Cult Rhetoric Does Disservice ABC’s 20/20 Program, October 18, 1998 by RoxAnne Moore    

Written Fall 1998 for Honors 291 : New Religious Movements

In commemoration of the upcoming twentieth anniversary of the Jonestown People’s Temple mass murder/suicide in November, ABC’s 20/20 devoted the October 18th program to the topic and called it Tragedy at Jonestown. The program combined the "past and the present" by presenting news coverage video of Jonestown as it existed twenty years ago interspersed with footage of recent interviews done with surviving members. It shows us what Jonestown looks like today by taking us along as the surviving sons revisit their past and search for reminders of what was once their home. Billed at the outset of this episode by Barbara Walters as "one of the most gripping hours" that 20/20 has ever brought us, we are told we will be making a return visit to Jonestown along with Jim Jones’ surviving sons and Forrest Sawyer. Diane Sawyer provides us with a brief reminder of what occurred in Jonestown twenty years ago and Barbara Walters suggests that the purpose in bringing us this program is: "to try to understand why so many people died."

Analysis of Program: What is immediately noticeable at the outset of this program is the usual negative, albeit popular, "rhetoric" used by reporters when referring to Jim Jones, Jonestown and the events that took place there twenty years ago. By reviewing the transcript of the program provided on ABC’s Internet Web Site, it was discovered that approximately eighty negative terms and/or phrases are used by various people to describe the event, the people and most of all when referring to Jim Jones himself.

The question that arises when hearing this rhetoric is: "How does this enable us to better understand what happened there?" Doesn’t it rather serve to make the viewer feel as though this awful and horrible world (that of Jim Jones and his followers in Jonestown) is so far removed from our more "normal" world, that it is beyond the scope of our understanding? Words and terms such as "gripping, horror story, and incomprehensible carnage" are used in the opening moments of this program by Sawyer and Walters to "grab an audience" – NOT as a way of helping us "better understand what happened." Just as the gloomy soundtrack sets the tone, the rhetoric used sets us (as viewers) apart from this (to use Sawyer’s own phrase) "incomprehensible scene of carnage." This tactic is used by the media (especially in cases having to do with stories such as Jonestown) in order to sell their stories, their programs, and their newspapers – not with any real sense of serving the public’s right to know and understand what happened. This is an incomprehensible fact that does the public a great injustice when it comes to relating stories such as the Tragedy at Jonestown.

This episode brought a new angle to the story by introducing us to Stephan and Jim Jones, Jr. But the familiar rhetoric strewn throughout the program still impeded any real sense of being able to "identify" with what happened to over 900 people on that day in Jonestown when the mass murders/suicides took place. Jim Jones, Jr. attempts to explain (though being prompted by Forrest Sawyer to admit to the truth that his father was a "bad" man) that what he tried to accomplish beforehand was good. This statement is immediately followed up by Sawyer’s statement: "For 20 years, each in his own way, the brothers have wrestled with their father’s demons." The announcer comes on just before the commercial break and tells us: "Jim Jones promised them paradise and condemned them to an unimaginable hell. Why didn’t anyone stop him before his paranoia turned to madness?" Diane Sawyer follows that statement after the commercial break with the question: "How did one deranged man gain so much control over so many?"

To give some credit to the show and its stated purpose, there "were" comments made by various people about the reality of cults: "That no one should ever be so arrogant as to think it couldn’t happen to them." While this is indeed a true statement, the news media, with their "cult" rhetoric, makes is unlikely that we as viewers will ever truly believe that possibility. Barbara Walters closes the program by linking Waco and Heaven’s Gate to what happened in Jonestown. Although it is true that in all these cases there was a loss of life — the situations were different, the leaders were different, and what’s more — the people were different. By putting them all together in one category and labeling them as "dangerous cults" we remove ourselves quickly and easily from being able to identify or understand each individual story.

Mary McCormick Maaga sums up, perhaps in a more intelligible way than this review has done, the reason why the media does their public a disservice by using this negative rhetoric. She says: "If we spend the whole time demonizing Jim Jones and laying all the evil at his feet there is nothing to learn from Jonestown." Back to the Archive Back to the Top

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