The Impact of Journalism on Jim Jones and Peoples Temple: Examining New West’s investigative report

by Gabrielle Greenfield

(Gabrielle Greenfield’s essay about researching and writing this paper is here.)

On the morning of August 1st, 1977, the city of San Francisco was in a frenzy. Jim Jones and more than seven hundred of his followers had just fled to Guyana. Jones was an up-and-coming preacher of the mysterious Peoples Temple, a new religious movement based in San Francisco. Hours earlier, Jones had listened while an anonymous caller read the proof of an article which was about to be published in New West Magazine. Marshall Kilduff’s and Phil Tracy’s investigative piece, “Inside Peoples Temple,”[1] detailed serious allegations which some of Jones’ former followers had made of sexual assault, money laundering, and white fundamentalist beliefs.

By the time the caller hung up, Jones knew that he had finally been exposed. He zipped up his already-packed bags and started his pilgrimage away from the clutches of the United States media. The New West article influenced the public’s perception of Jones so severely, his formerly positive image now became forever tainted in the American people’s eyes. He had to relocate his followers to a safe, secluded, home base, where he could run his self-described socialist community without fear of persecution.

What was in this article that Jones was so afraid of? Why was New West Magazine the only news outlet to even consider publishing the piece prior to the Jonestown massacre? Why were Kilduff and Tracy the only watchdogs who were willing to expose Jones for who he was? Even when they did, why did no one do any serious follow up on their report? What was in this article that the whole city of San Francisco was afraid of?

The next journalists who attempted to expose Jones ended up dead; along with Jones and 913 of his followers in Guyana. Jones executed orders of a mass suicide on his socialist commune, and had Temple members attack and kill visiting Congressman Leo Ryan and the news crew accompanying him who were attempting to expose the raw truth. The aftermath of Jonestown caused a media riot, resulting in miles of newsprint and days filled with airtime devoted to the tragedy. The footage shot by NBC cameraman Robert Brown as he was gunned down at the port Kaituma airstrip was replayed again and again on air, along with pictures of hundreds of lifeless bodies of the former Jonestown inhabitants.

The Jonestown investigation has been transformative to the way human disasters have been covered by the media. The question that needs to be asked is, how did the press influence and perhaps propagate this tragedy? Throughout the course of this paper, I will investigate Jones’ and the Temple’s censorship of the press, the refusal of the press to potentially stop the Jonestown massacre, and the perseverance of Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy in their valiant effort to investigate Jones before it was too late.

Tracy and Kilduff’’s New West article[2] was based on testimonials of a few ex- Peoples Temple members, and was the key[3] investigative report that led readers behind the doors of this new religious movement. Peoples Temple was led and founded by the influential and charismatic Jim Jones. The New West article discussed Jones’ rise to political influence, the Temple’s catharsis meetings, the faked healings, practice of punishment, sexual assault and Jones’ misleading financial operations. This information, true as it was, was enough for Jones’ clean media presence in San Francisco, to be blown for good.

San Francisco Chronicle journalist Marshall Kilduff was concerned by a recent decision which his paper had made. In the April of 1976, Kilduff’s Chronicle colleague, Julie Smith, had written an expose on Jones and Peoples Temple, but The Chronicle refused to publish Smith’s article. Jim Jones was the perfect asset to San Francisco’s liberal establishment. He donated to charities, promoted racial equality and could raise large crowds for any political event. Politicians loved him. Over 20,000 people had attended Temple services over the years. Jones brought crowds, money, and votes, and yet, as a man, he remained a mystery. He seemed to be doing great things for the city, but no one knew who he was, where he came from, and what his intentions were.

Alarmed by the The Chronicle’s decision not to publish a much-needed story to the public, Kilduff became suspicious of the paper’s uncharacteristically strange action towards Julie Smith. The articles on Jones had been scarce, ever since a series written in 1972 and published by the San Francisco Examiner claimed that Jones called himself a “prophet” and that he could “raise people from the dead.”[4] After the first articles were published, 150 Temple members picketed The Examiner for two days. The paper then suspended the series, although it claimed the decision was an editorial one, not influenced by public pressure. No official investigation was ever pursued on Jones as a result of the Examiner series.

In 1973 the Temple offered “free speech” prizes to twelve newspapers and magazines to help print the Peoples Temples Newspaper. These papers included The New York Times, and three San Francisco newspapers. In 1976, The Chronicle ran another short article on Jones, but it was short and mild, and revealed no new information. Jim Jones continued to rise to media glory by landing positive portrayal in the press as well as being appointed by the mayor onto the San Francisco Housing Authority.

The media was dry on new information about Jones, so Marshall Kilduff decided he was going to write the profile that people desired most, finally giving thorough coverage on Jones and his Temple. Upon taking a tour of the Temple to follow up on Julie Smith’s investigation, Kilduff noticed something unsettling. He spotted Chronicle editor Steve Gavin and reporter Kay Butler were attending one of Jones’ prayer services. Immediately he knew the real reason why The Chronicle refused to publish Smith’s article. Intrigued more than ever, Kilduff was now fully committed to reveal Jim Jones and the unknown details of Peoples Temple, regardless of the consequences.

Writing this story was a dangerous and risky move, but Kilduff was persistent and believed that the injustice of Jones needed to be uncovered. With Jones’ love and admiration from thousands of San Franciscans as well as from the city’s politicians[5] and even their mayor, an exposé on Jones would shake the whole metropolis.

Kilduff was now aware that The Chronicle wouldn’t publish anything critical of Jim Jones or his movement, so he proposed his story to various newspapers and news outlets, none of which would distribute an unfavorable story on Peoples Temple, perhaps in fear of losing Jones’ support and money, or facing protests from his followers.[6] Nevertheless, Kilduff remained vigilant, and eventually came to Rupert Murdoch’s brand new New West Magazine, where he partnered with staff writer Phil Tracy to gather more information on Jones and his followers.

By the June of 1977, word spread about the magazine’s plans to publish Kilduff’s article. New West’s editorial offices started receiving long letters and hundreds of phone calls from Temple members campaigning against its publication. Temple members also managed to contact all of the advertisers for New West and, somehow, Rupert Murdoch himself. When Jones heard about the article, he became very worried about what article and what Kilduff and Tracy would find.

In addition to getting his followers to protest publication, Jim Jones began making final plans for a mass exodus of Peoples Temple to Jonestown, Guyana, a very isolated location in South America. The planning and the idea of exodus became more urgent as former members began revealing the Temple’s secrets to Kilduff and Tracy by contacting New West.

Most information received from former members consisted of explaining the deeply-disturbing commitment that the Temple members had towards Jones. The Temple had collected thousands of dollars in Social Security and welfare payments from its members. Some also signed their property rights to Jones,[7] and some even signed their children over to him.

Most members interviewed for New West insisted on anonymity, but a few prominent members agreed to be named, photographed, and credited for their stories in the publication. One of the well-known defectors from the Temple who revealed her identity was Temple notary and a former member of Jones’ inner circle, Grace Stoen. Her husband Tim was Jones’ chief advisor and provided legal aid to the Temple. In addition, Tim had signed a legal document that their son had been fathered by Jones with his consent. John Victor Stoen was living in Temple facilities, apart from his mother. Grace didn’t like the thought of her child belonging to anyone but her, let alone the Temple, and soon began to notice all of the discrepancies with the Temple’s funds, as well as sexual misconduct. Unhappy with these discrepancies, Grace and another unhappy member fled to Lake Tahoe, while her ex-husband Tim, and son, remained with Jones.

By late July 1977, Kilduff and Tracy finally had enough information, personal testimonies, documents and allegations to bring Jones’ corrupt new religious movement to light. The release of Kilduff and Tracy’s article was announced four days before Jones and his inner circle finalized their mass exodus to South America. The night before the article’s release, through dealings with an affluent department store owner and the Mayor of San Francisco, an unknown source phoned Jones. The source read him the article or – as Jones saw it – the words of his ultimate destruction. By the morning of August 1st, 1977, by the time Kilduff and Tracy’s article was published and circulating around San Francisco inside the pages of New West Magazine, Jones had already left the country.

This conclusion is not necessarily claiming that the New West article led Jones to persuade all of his followers to drink a cyanide-infused grape-flavored punch and commit suicide. However, it does enforce and re-iterate the undeniable influence Jones had over the media, and how the media had an indisputable influence over Jones as well. Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy’s article was a bold and brave move to attempt to bring awareness to Jones’ control of his congregants, the city of San Francisco and the United States government. Unfortunately, Jones was one step ahead for Kilduff and Tracy, and since no one took appropriate action to investigate, Jones continued to assert his violent dominance, without media interference, to convince men, women and children to die for him.

 

Works Cited

Black, A., Jr. “Jonestown–two faces of suicide: A Durkheimian analysis.” Suicide & Life – Threatening Behavior (1990) 20(4), 285-306. Print. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/224898457?accountid=14696.

Jencks, Richard W. “The Press and Jim Jones.” Wall Street Journal 29 Dec. 1978: 8. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Jorgensen, Danny L. “The Social Construction and Interpretation of Deviance: Jonestown and the Mass Media.” Deviant Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Journal (1980): 319-21. Print.

Olson, Paul J. “The Public Perception of ‘cults’ and ‘New Religious Movements’.” Journal  for the Scientific Study of Religion. 45.1 (2006): 97-106. Print.

Seib, Charles B. “Jonestown: What the Media Did.” The Washington Post [Washington, DC] 1 Dec. 1978, sec. A: 19-20. Print.

Stuckart, Emerson Maureen. ““Never Heard A Man Speak Like This Before”: Reverend Jim Jones And Peoples Temple.” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & People’s Temple. San Diego State University, Jan. 2014. Web. 25 Nov. 2014. <http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=61794>.

Tracy, Phil, and Marshall Kilduff. “Inside Peoples Temple.” New West 1 Aug. 1977: 31-38. Print. Also available here.

Notes

[1] Tracy, Phil, and Marshall Kilduff. “Inside Peoples Temple.” New West 1 Aug. 1977: 31-38. Print. Also available here.

[2] Kilduff, Marshall, and Ron Javers. The Suicide Cult: The Inside Story of the Peoples Temple Sect and the Massacre in Guyana. New York: Bantam Books, 1978. Print.

[3] Jorgensen, Danny L. “The Social Construction and Interpretation of Deviance: Jonestown and the Mass Media.” Deviant Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Journal (1980): 319-21. Print.

[4] Black, A., Jr. “Jonestown–two faces of suicide: A Durkheimian analysis.” Suicide & Life – Threatening Behavior (1990) 20(4), 285-306. Print. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/224898457?accountid=14696.

[5] Olson, Paul J. “The Public Perception of ‘cults’ and ‘New Religious Movements’.” Journal  for the Scientific Study of Religion. 45.1 (2006): 97-106. Print.

[6] Jencks, Richard W. “The Press and Jim Jones.” Wall Street Journal 29 Dec. 1978: 8. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

[7] Seib, Charles B. “Jonestown: What the Media Did.” The Washington Post [Washington, DC]. 1 Dec. 1978, sec. A: 19-20. Print.

Originally posted on October 29th, 2015.

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