Jonestown and the Media: My Research Journey

(Gabrielle Greenfield’s paper, “The Impact of Journalism on Jim Jones and Peoples Temple,” is here.)

Two summers ago, I was living and working in an intentional community in Upstate New York. One weekend, my friend Shannon invited me back to her home in the Hudson River Valley, where I found her in her room one morning watching a docudrama titled, Jonestown: Paradise Lost. I didn’t get to watch much, because the outdoors were calling, but I vowed that I would see the whole thing when I had enough time.

Once I did see it a month or two later, I couldn’t stop researching, trying to understand what I had seen. I surfed this website, watched news footage, read old articles … anything I could find for more juicy morsels of information that the documentary didn’t explain in depth. I find it serendipitous that the final assignment in my “History of Journalism” class at the University of Maryland was to write a paper on an important moment in journalism history, or an in-depth biography on a journalist of our choice. At first, I decided to write a biography of Don Harris, the NBC news correspondent who was killed at the Port Kaituma airstrip as he covered Congressman Leo Ryan’s trip to Jonestown in November 1978, but there just wasn’t enough information on him to write a 8-10 page paper. However, when I began researching Harris, I found all sorts of strange discrepancies involving the media coverage of Jonestown. I found Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy’s article from New West magazine, and decided to dive in deeper, because I couldn’t understand the lack of coverage on the People’s Temple. There was plenty of information on the actual Jonestown Massacre in Guyana, but little to no information on the Temple beforehand.

As my research continued, I noticed something quite alarming when it came to finding books on Jonestown and Jim Jones. I would go to my university’s library website, and find the call number for the books that I needed for my research, would make sure that they were available – which the website said they were – but to my surprise, when I arrived at the stacks, the books were never there. More than that, the call numbers on the shelves would exactly skip the number/books I needed. They were nowhere to be found! When I asked the librarians what was going on, they had no idea. Their only response was, “Sometimes books get lost.”

Obviously, this drove me crazy. It was as if someone was still censoring and protecting Jones! Luckily, I found enough information to write my paper, and learn much more about the Temple than I would have expected. Writing this paper helped me become aware of all of the terrible corruption within the media, and I was so disgusted with the industry and lack of truth, at the end of the year I changed my major from Journalism to English. I still have no explanation for the missing books, and that will forever haunt me.