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.
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.
Bronstein shrugged. What could he say? He hadn't worked for the Ex in those days. And anyway, this evening was devoted to the memory of Greg Robinson, a very good Examiner photographer shot to death at age 27 by Peoples Temple members while covering the story.
All these years later, Robinson's family still is very much in mourning. They had traveled up from Burbank for the evening, and one by one, they spoke movingly of their loss. Robinson's dad angrily lashed out at cults; he was easily the evening's most passionate speaker. Robinson's sister spoke to Greg's powerful photo exhibit upstairs -- on display through Dec. 11 -- and of her brother's ongoing legacy: the Greg Robinson Scholarship, awarded to photojournalism majors in San Francisco State's journalism department, Greg's alma mater.
(Self-disclosure: I teach journalism at S.F. State, and can testify that the Robinson awards have fueled the dreams and careers of some terrific young photographers for the past couple of decades. This, for me, is the happiest outcome of the madness in the jungle.)
Not so happy a prospect is the aforementioned picketing scheduled for the 18th, outside the Examiner. I asked demonstration organizer Kathleen Kinsolving, daughter of former Examiner Religion Editor Lester Kinsolving, what she hopes to accomplish. "It's time we tell the whole world, for God's sake, about the Examiner's gutless cover-up," she said, "and how the paper could have stopped Jones in Ukiah. The Examiner had a responsibility to break the Peoples Temple's back."
Fair enough, but what result did she think this re-enactment of the Peoples Temple picket line of 26 years ago would produce -- an apology from the Examiner? "That would be nice," she responded.
What Would William Randolph Hearst Think?
I reached her father at his home in Vienna, Va. Les Kinsolving is still every bit as courtly, charming, and bitchy as I had remembered him from a quarter-century ago. He remains extremely angry at the Examiner, and suspicious of its motives. He'd read the Examiner series on Jonestown, which contained "not one solitary mention" of Kinsolving's pioneering coverage of the Peoples Temple for the Examiner. "Now I know Larry Hatfield, an honorable man, a fine reporter, and I know he must have been forbidden to mention my name."
Kinsolving, 71, now an evening talk show host in Baltimore, characterized the Examiner's 1972 squelching of his Peoples Temple articles thus: "Disregard of a newspaper's obligation to tell the whole truth is lying."
Kinsolving languidly stretched out that last word: "lllllyyyiiiinnnggg."
"And I can assure you of this: If [the late Examiner founder and publisher] William Randolph Hearst had been alive, he'd never have let the Peoples Temple story rest until justice had been served. You know, don't you, that we could have exposed Jones and stopped him before any of this carnage occurred."
"It's Never Been the Same Since, Really"
Phil Tracy, who teamed with Chronicle then-reporter (now editorial writer) Marshall Kilduff to produce the in-vestigative blockbuster for New West Magazine that blew Jim Jones out of town, takes a semidetached view of the anniversary.
Much of what you think you know about Jones first surfaced in the tirelessly and meticulously reported 1977 New West Tracy/Kilduff collaboration.
"It was the only story I ever wrote where we published only 20 percent of what we had," said Tracy. "There was a lot more stuff -- all sorts of weird sex stuff and possible murders, maybe five or six killings before Jonestown -- stuff we hadn't quite nailed down and didn't go with.
"But anyhow, it did the job. All the papers and TV stations jumped on it, and the Temple went from this completely inward-looking group of people to a place where the TV cameras are coming around and Temple members are being interviewed. And I thought Jones wouldn't be able to control them. Y'know -- everybody wants to see themselves on TV, so they'll watch, and they'll see what the rest of the world thinks of them, and the whole Temple will just collapse."
It didn't work out that way. Jones packed up his congregation and fled to the jungle where, eventually, they nearly all perished.
Each of us feels the weight of Jonestown differently. Tracy, a big, gentle guy, has worked for the San Francisco Study Center, a nonprofit that performs media work for other nonprofits, for years. That's his way of living up to his journalistic responsibilities, as he sees them.
"That Peoples Temple story," said Tracy, "that was the last serious journalism, the last investigative work -- call it whatever -- that I've done. I've written other stuff, but not the heavy stuff. That story really changed my picture of journalism, what journalists do.
"I would say, basically, in the aftermath of Jonestown -- I wouldn't say I was the same guy after that; it's never been the same since, really.
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