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.
Woodstock? The death of Judy Garland? Buzz Aldrin's walk on the moon? The rock 'n' roll calamity at Altamont? What these four events have in common is that they all happened in 1969. Editors and writers are already at work, count on it, on 30th anniversary "Woodstock Nation Revisited" and "She's Not in Kansas Anymore" and "Moonglow" and "Let It Bleed" specials for 1999.
In the San Francisco news media, the 20th anniversary of Jonestown has blossomed into an all-out media event. I've lost count of how many times I've seen the pictures of the bloated bodies under the hot sun at the scorching hot Guyana "death camp." Festivities peak on the historic day itself, today, Nov. 18, at noon, when a re-enactment of a Peoples Temple picket line in front of the San Francisco Examiner is scheduled -- an attempt to expose what its organizer calls the "cover-up" of the Peoples Temple's evil machinations "by the Examiner and other media, and the flagrant support given to Jim Jones by local clergy and politicians, such as Rev. Cecil Williams and Mayor [then state Assemblyman] Willie Brown."
Commemoratives as News-Porn
By now, few news consumers can be unfamiliar with Jim Jones, his proclaimed radical revolutionary Christianity, his multiethnic congregation, his financial and sexual abuses of that congregation, his cultivation and intimidation of the San Francisco power elite, his flight to Guyana, and his escape, in an orgy of death and suicide, from the authorities who threatened to shut down his scam.
Anniversary commemorations, then, aren't really news, they're entertainments, accentuating news-porn highlights guaranteed to delight readers. The split-second of entry of a fatal round into the presidential skull. The final agonizing death throes by drugs of a pop music icon. And especially the ghastly details of a drugged-out madman raining death by poison, bullet, and knife upon 912 followers and foes.
Rarely do we learn anything new, but rarely do we expect anything new of porn.
Here's an example: A firsthand account by Tim Reiterman, on assignment at Jonestown for the Examiner, of the airstrip killings (five dead, several wounded, including the reporter himself) on the fateful day.
"[A] barrage of gunshots pierced the damp air and sent everyone into a frenzy. Crouching, I stumbled under the plane and dove as bullets kicked up dirt and tore into people around me. Red exploded from my left forearm, and a second round punched my wrist, blowing off my watch." (Excerpted from recent commemoratives in the Los Angeles Times, where Reiterman now serves as state projects editor, and the San Francisco Examiner.)
Reiterman recently flew down to Guyana to revisit the site of "the tragedy," now mostly overgrown jungle. He returned to write 4,000 words attempting to show "how time has not diminished the horror." His lead paragraph depicted survivors coming together "to remember the unfathomable events of another Nov. 18."
Two hundred words along, though, Reiterman proposed to fathom the unfathomable. Survivors' stories, he wrote, "may carry threads of meaning for the millions who cannot comprehend the murders and suicides orchestrated by the Rev. Jim Jones."
Of the ensuing 129 paragraphs, barely four (if four) delved into what Jonestown means today and what we can learn from it. One observer told the reporter that even in the aftermath of Waco and Heaven's Gate, politicians are no more aware of cults than before. Another warned that you can't give yourself over to another person. A minister lamented that unswerving loyalty can have "devastating consequences."
These are the few slim "threads of meaning" I was able to identify. How significantly they advance anybody else's comprehension, I can't say. Mine, none. The rest of the story is the classic reporter's I-was-there replay of the horrid events.
"Days of Darkness," by Larry Hatfield, the Examiner series published last week, devoted less space to Jonestown's carnage, and more to the dangers of cults. It explores why San Franciscans, in their left-leaning '70s naivete, fell for Jones and feared his wrath.
Nowhere in Hatfield's approximately 5,000 words on the Peoples Temple, however, is there any mention that the Examiner had the goods on Jones -- and could have expanded on the story via further energetic reporting -- more than six years before 913 died at Jonestown.
Of a Photographer Dying Young
At a 20th anniversary Examiner "Tribute to Greg Robinson" reception in the Green Room at the Veteran's Building last Thursday night, I asked Examiner Editor Phil Bronstein whether he thought hundreds of lives might have been saved if the Examiner had stepped up its reporting on the Peoples Temple in 1972.