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Wednesday, Nov 18 1998

Smiling Like Nixon
The strangest interview I ever conducted took place in the conference room of the San Francisco Examiner on Thursday, Sept. 21, 1972. As an Examiner reporter, I had gotten the nod to interview The Prophet, the Rev. Jim Jones, founder and head man of the Peoples Temple Christian (Disciples) Church (membership: 4,711, approximately half African-American) of Redwood Valley, Calif., near Ukiah. My tape recorder and I have hung out with some pretty unusual players (Richard Nixon, Jimi Hendrix, Larry Ellison, Sun Ra, Buckminster Fuller, Big Mama Thornton), but none of them begin to compare with The Prophet.

I had been assigned to interview Jim Jones to make good on a deal cut by Examiner editors. On a Wednesday, Jones and several hundred of his congregation were picketing the Examiner with signs proclaiming that The Prophet had been unfairly treated in Examiner news stories. Here follows my 1972 description of what transpired:

"Presently [Jones] and three editors of this journal became enmeshed in conversation. The outcome was an invitation to drop by the following day to 'tell his side of the story' -- coupled with an agreement that the Rev. Jones would answer all questions on such matters as, for instance, the claim that he has raised 43 people from the dead."

In the 24 hours I had to prep for the interview, I pulled up all past clips of stories and put my hands on a selection of Peoples Temple newsletters and brochures. The Temple's own material went a long way toward confirming most of the Examiner's previous coverage, as written by the paper's religion editor, a defrocked Episcopalian minister named Lester Kinsolving.

The editors' problem with Kinsolving's work, as they explained it to me, was that Lester's stuff generally lacked hard sources. I figured my job was not to play media critic but to get the damned interview; The Prophet could hardly object to publication of words he had spoken into my tape recorder.

There's a time-tested strategy for interviewing "tough" subjects. You start with the softball questions. Let your subject expand upon his proud achievements. Get conversational. Build confidence. Once that's accomplished, gradually steer toward the less flattering questions.

So, after shaking hands with Jones across the conference table, I opened with some lighthearted bullshit, hoping to establish a rapport. We were not alone. His attorney sat at his side, with a bodyguard nearby, and then-City Editor John Todd sat at the table, as well. No matter; The Prophet responded almost jovially. He came on low-key and folksy, bursting into sudden toothy smiles at inappropriate moments, like Nixon.

The Prophet's No-Hitter
To my astonishment, Jones skipped right past my introductory softballs and went straight for the hard issues. Almost immediately we were discussing his techniques for resurrecting dead people. "I'd say, 'This is Jim. I love you,' " he told me. " 'We need you. Your family needs you. We care.' " I asked what he was feeling at the time. "Deep concern. Deep empathy." With that, the dead -- all members of his congregation -- would come back to life. Jones could sense "something in the eyes when they first begin to focus. They're tense. And you say, 'It's all right. It's over.' "

He acknowledged there had never been a doctor in attendance to verify a resurrection. It was his say-so that they had died, and his say-so that they'd come back.

I suggested to Jones that in sports parlance, saving 43 straight dead people was like pitching a no-hitter. The implication was that if he could sustain his streak, he and his people could live forever. Jones didn't think "we'd evolved that far yet ..." but he didn't outright disagree with my premise of eternal life.

Soon we were talking about those armed guards. While he didn't think these "security guards" were necessary, his board of directors did, and therefore the guards would stay, firearms at the ready.

This and plenty more weirdness appeared under the headline "Prophet Tells How He Revives Dead" in the first edition of the Sunday, Sept. 24, 1972, Examiner. When The Prophet and his people saw the story, they made a beeline for the Examiner offices, where they threatened to resume picketing and promised legal action unless the story could be made more agreeable to the Peoples Temple. This explanation was given to me by an editor when I was shown a severely edited, "cleaned up" version of my story as it was to appear in subsequent editions.

I argued for a while, saw I was getting nowhere, and demanded that my byline be removed. It was, and that sorry, detuned, un-bylined excuse for a story was what Examiner subscribers read on Sunday.

A number of us, mostly reporters, tried to convince the paper to launch into a full-scale investigation of Jones, based on what my 2-1/2-hour interview had revealed and Les Kinsolving's still-unpublished work had suggested. The Prophet seemed clearly to be a charlatan. There was no way his claims of raising the dead could stand close scrutiny. The armed guards pointed to cultlike intimidation. And the guy gave every appearance of being nuts.

No go. In the words of then-Examiner Publisher Charles Gould, "It's not up to us to meddle with the way others wish to practice their religion."

When I heard the news six years later about all those dead people, I felt the weight of a responsibility I hadn't fully lived up to. Why, if the Examiner was unwilling to expose Jones, hadn't I pursued the story independently and free-lanced it? I got over my personal funk after a while. I had only been a bit player in this drama, after all. But (obviously) I still think about it sometimes.

Re-Enacting a Peoples Temple Picket Line
Rarely do we question the news media's attachment to anniversaries and commemoratives. Thirty-fifth anniversary of the JFK assassination? Torrents of copy, multiple replays of the stalwart widow, little John John bravely saluting, the thrum thrum thrum of muffled drums behind the Kennedy cortege.

About The Author

John Burks


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