Printer Friendly

The Peoples Press: The Evolution of the Media's Treatment of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple.

After the tragedy at Jonestown, the media quickly rushed in to address the concerns of many Americans by exploring two questions: how did this happen and who can we blame? The press had not always been so quick to condemn Jim Jones or to label Peoples Temple as a cult. This relationship between Peoples Temple and the media evolved over its time in the United States. Although some local journalists raised concerns long before the departure to Guyana, for years the coverage of Peoples Temple focused on their utopian goals of racial harmony and economic uplift for African Americans. From the early days of Peoples Temple when it appeared much like any local church to its San Francisco years when Jim Jones used the media as a tool to expand his following and publicize his ideals, this article examines published media accounts in the period 1955-1978 to consider the shifting nature of this relationship.

Jim Jones struggled to find a denominational niche before settling uncomfortably into an association with Disciples of Christ in Indiana in 1955, creating a space for people of all races to worship side by side. After concluding that a nuclear apocalypse was imminent, and because of ongoing tensions with the local community over his progressive ideas about race relations, Jones searched for the place he believed would be safest for his congregation in the future. Jones moved his church to Ukiah in Northern California in 1965. Peoples Temple spread over the next fifteen years throughout California, with large congregations in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Much of the press from 1955 to 1975 was positive. In the last two years of Peoples Temple's activity in San Francisco as they moved their community to Guyana, the relationship with the local press shifted, with increasing scrutiny and questions arising about Jones's dealings with local politicians, financial mismanagement, and abusive behavior.

The Indianapolis Star periodically reported on Jim Jones as a young minister, focusing on his community outreach, his promotion of racial harmony, and his venture selling monkeys. The first mention the author could find of Jones describes a twenty-two-year-old pastor who started an importation business to sell monkeys as pets to raise funds for his church projects. The tone of the article reflects the curious situation, focusing more on Jones's struggles with government agencies than on his community work. (1) Beginning in 1955 in the Indianapolis News and in 1956 in the Indianapolis Star, the page of announcements for local churches included weekly advertisements for Jones's radio show and Peoples Temple services including "miracle healing service" and youth outreach. (2) Peoples Temple stands out on the page--it is one of a handful of advertisements that includes a photo of a pastor, and each week's ad contained a description of a person whom Jones had healed (for example, "Louisville woman cured of total deafness"). (3) The interracial character of Peoples Temple is subtly referred to in their slogan, "Revival Message for All Mankind," and also in the note that the service included "famous Negro and Caucasian singers." (4) In September 1955, the notices became more overt with the inclusion of the statement "FOR ALL RACES AND DENOMINATIONS," (5) and another announcement for guest speakers stated that "we teach and practice complete integration. Help us serve the needy of all races and creeds." (6) This overtness disappears a year later when the announcement instead read, "An apostolic congregation for all denominations," with no mention at all of race; but it then reappears in 1958 with the addition of the adjective "inclusive." (7) Although the announcements made by Peoples Temple reveal minor changes in content from week to week, it is unclear whether this reflects editorial influence or simply different people writing the copy.

Articles written about Jones and his church in this period are rare, and they appear to have attracted little public attention. In 1959, Jones participated in a panel on the challenges of interracial marriage. While the article offers few details, the concluding statement, "The forum is a continuation of a series on integration problems in Indianapolis," suggests the writer viewed changes in interracial relations as a negative situation rather than an opportunity to move forward. (8) Articles in the News on May 11, 1963, note that some of the victims of a car crash belonged to Peoples Temple and that their funeral services would be held there, but the articles offer no commentary on Peoples Temple or their pastor. The Star, however, included an interview with Jones as not only the pastor of four of the deceased but also the adoptive father of one, Jones's four-year-old daughter Stephanie, a Korean orphan. Perhaps the most notable aspect of this piece is Jones's claim to have foreknowledge that some of his congregation "will never be back." (9) The car accident received notice outside the state, with a brief article in the Baltimore Sun noting that the victims were members of Peoples Temple and that one of the deceased was a Korean orphan adopted by Rev. and Mrs. James Jones. (10) Again, there is no description or commentary on either Peoples Temple or Jim Jones. The Baltimore Sun mentioned Jones very briefly again, this time as a guest speaker at the dedication of a new Baptist church in Baltimore. (11)

Most of the mentions of Peoples Temple in this period are cursory and nonjudgmental, describing their involvement in public affairs, such as a protest against granting a tavern license for a bar near churches, and as signatories to a petition to maintain funding for kindergartens. (12) Peoples Temple in these instances is just a part of a greater local action on these issues and does not draw attention as in any way unusual. This suggests that even though Jim Jones and Peoples Temple were significantly challenging community standards with regards to racial integration, it did not create conflict in Indianapolis in ways that caught the eye of the press. This is not to say that there were not community tensions or discomfort over evolving racial relations, simply that the press either chose not to amplify them through their reporting or that the tensions did not erupt in dramatic and public displays.

It seems a bit odd, given Jones's penchant for the spotlight that Jones does not seem to have established a relationship with the Indianapolis press. Jones's "miracle healing services" and calls to "come if you hunger to hear a modern prophet speak unadulterated truth" in the Peoples Temple service announcements suggest that Jones hungered for attention but had to rely on his followers to provide it. Even when Jones started to make a name for himself in the community, media attention continued to be understated. For example, a brief statement under "Names in the News" notes that Jim Jones of Peoples Temple is under consideration for the City Human Rights Commission, yet makes no comment on Jones's experience or background that might qualify him for this position. (13) Even after Jones received the appointment, he still only rated a couple of lines in a column also noting postal workers being bitten by dogs and the state senator's hobby of collecting unusual names. However, the column refers to Jones's "rainbow family" as the reason he and wife Marceline sent a letter to Khruschev protesting nuclear testing--an acknowledgement both of Jones's active promotion of racial harmony and of his growing concerns about the nuclear threat. (14)

In November 1961, an announcement of grants awarded by Disciples of Christ notes that Peoples Temple was one of three churches to receive funding and that "all are interracial congregations serving communities with major population changes." (15) This indicates not only that Peoples Temple was not unique as a church emphasizing racial harmony but also that they did so with the approval and encouragement of their denomination. The tone of the article is still "just the facts," adding the details that the grant would pay the pastors' salaries and fund a station wagon for food deliveries as part of Peoples Temple community outreach, yet avoiding commending or critiquing these activities. A 1963 article draws attention to Peoples Temple's Free Restaurant and Free Pantry, started in 1961 and 1963 respectively, to provide food for "hungry, job-seeking men." The article emphasizes the worthiness of the people that Peoples Temple helped and the respectability of the program. (16) Jones spent about two years on a missionary trip to Brazil in 1961-1963 and after his return moved with a number of his followers to Ukiah in Northern California, a spot he chose for its safety in the event of a nuclear war.

Once in Ukiah, Jones worked to establish his community, but it took several years to develop a relationship with the press that would promote the work and ideals of Peoples Temple. There are few mentions of Jim Jones or Peoples Temple in California papers before 1970. Yet apparently the group attracted more attention than in Indianapolis. Ongoing coverage in Ukiah frequently mentioned Peoples Temple's involvement in local activities but only as part of a larger story about the community. The stories did not describe Peoples Temple in any detail, just provided a statement of facts about the event. (17) The stories seem more perfunctory than interested in the group or Jones. This makes it difficult to determine media opinions about Peoples Temple in this period, but a notice supporting Jones appeared in the Ukiah Daily Journal in May 1968. This "private citizen's ad," placed by an anonymous member of Peoples Temple, referenced rumors and attacks on Jones and Peoples Temple on a number of issues, ranging from supporting a tax increase for education to purportedly promoting drug use. (18) Clearly, members of the community had concerns about the behavior and ideals of Peoples Temple, perhaps simply because they were a substantial group of outsiders in a small town. A letter of support for the group signed by dozens of local individuals and businesses followed the ad. (19) Yet the author could find no news reports describing any local conflicts involving Peoples Temple during this period. A notice from Peoples Temple published in the Ukiah Daily Journal in 1968 thanks the community for their support, including three hundred letters to the paper. Oddly there is no mention of the reason behind the letters; however, the notice goes on to vaguely assert that "Peoples Temple occasionally will express its gratitude to various groups and persons publicly for acts of service to mankind." (20) An affirmation from a group of formerly drug-addicted Ukiahans to thank Peoples Temple for their role in their recovery appeared in late 1968, promoting Peoples Temple's rehabilitation program. (21) The notice ended with an offer to bring readers to the Temple's services. Again, the media entries about Peoples Temple are largely generated by the community, not by journalists' interest in the group.

In 1969, there was a change in the media coverage: Peoples Temple and Jim Jones began generating news rather than providing promotional announcements. A report of threats against Jones that resulted in police charging a local man with assault appeared in March. Nonetheless the story still offers minimal details about Jones, describing him simply as a minister and offering no commentary about his place in the community or local response to Peoples Temple, both of which might be relevant to readers trying to understand why a local beautician not connected to the church would attack Jones with a hunting knife in the presence of his congregation. (22) A follow-up story still gives no description of Jones or Peoples Temple but suggests the attack may have been because of a marriage Jones had performed for an acquaintance of the attacker. (23)

It was not until July 1969 that an article appeared that provided a substantive explanation of Peoples Temple, their goals, and their activities. (24) Jim Jones had decided to expand his following, proselytizing in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and he began using the press as a medium for promoting his goals. From this point, regular articles promoting Peoples Temple, including human interest stories and pieces highlighting the group's community service all written by Mike Williams, make regular appearances in the Daily Journal. Williams's stories provide a distinctive counter to the tensions suggested by the ads in 1968 defending Peoples Temple. His stories, such as "Children Learn Pastor's Home is 'Pet Haven,'" humanized Jones, portraying him as genial and softhearted. (25)

Jones's entree onto the San Francisco church scene began much as it had in Indianapolis and Ukiah, with perfunctory press mentions of his participation in local activities. (26) Jones was quicker in San Francisco to cultivate media relationships to boost his reputation and the publicize activities of Peoples Temple. Despite--or perhaps because of--the group's unconventional style, the San Francisco Sun Reporter in 1971 included enthusiastic entries about Peoples Temple in the Bay Area Church News and Activities section, recognizing the group as a legitimate part of the local religious community. The publisher of the paper, Dr. Carlton Goodlett, was Jim Jones's personal doctor. It seems odd that Goodlett would continue to be so supportive of Jones, given his intimate knowledge of him, likely including his drug addiction, paranoia, and sexual promiscuity. Perhaps Goodlett believed that the benefits that Peoples Temple provided to the black community in San Francisco outweighed Jones's personal failings. Whatever the reason, the Sun Reporter remained a steadfast booster for Peoples Temple, including attacking its detractors. The August 28, 1971, entry refers in glowing terms to Jones's "dynamic services," full to overflowing with congregants who came from all over California to hear Jones speak. The entry continues with mentions of Peoples Temple's ideology of inclusivity and equality, promotion of Jones's radio show, and a description of a miraculous healing by Jones of an elderly member previously viewed as a hopeless case. (27) Other churches' postings to the news section are markedly less hyperbolic and more businesslike in their listings of upcoming activities.

The Sun Reporter included regular stories outside the Church page supporting Peoples Temple and Jim Jones. The articles lauded the group's community outreach programs and took note of honors given to Peoples Temple and Jones by community and church organizations. These included the first annual Freedom of the Press Award from the National Newspaper Publishers Association for Peoples Temple's support of the "Fresno Bee Four," who were jailed for refusing to divulge their sources on a city corruption story; the Special Merit Award for outstanding civic leadership from the Sun Reporter; the Greatest Humanitarian Award from the Los Angeles Herald; and recognition for Jones as "one of the nation's most outstanding clergymen" from Religion in American Life. It should also be noted that Peoples Temple donated money to a variety of newspapers, including the Cincinnati Enquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Times, Sun Reporter, New York Times, and Oakland Tribune in "support of the First Amendment and freedom of conscience." (28) Peoples Temple and Jim Jones also received awards from politicians, including a Certificate of Honor from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for civic engagement and a plaque from the California state senate that marked their resolution commending Peoples Temple for its outreach programs. (29) These were presented at a testimonial dinner for Jim Jones thrown by Peoples Temple, so the press reflected the positive feedback loop created between Peoples Temple and the government.

In the early 1970s, most press reports on Peoples Temple emphasized the group's positive contributions. For example, the Sacramento Observer reported that Peoples Temple had voted to contribute $2,000 to the ransom fund for Patricia Hearst from the Symbionese Liberation Army and $300 each to families of people murdered in San Francisco, plus a reward for capture of their murderers. (30) The Sun Reporter listed Peoples Temple's activities on social justice issues, including raising legal fees for three black men in Washington, DC, who had been accused of rape, donating money to the families of slain law enforcement officers, and sending thousands of dollars and supplies sent to Biafra, Bangladesh, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Indian reservations in the United States. (31) The Sun Reporter also lauded Peoples Temple's support for "people whose rights are threatened," such as Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and the American Indian Movement (notably all left-wing radicals). (32) These stories and others were based in large part, in some cases word for word, on press releases sent out by Peoples Temple. (33)

Beyond listing the accomplishments of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones, the Sun Reporter actively sought to legitimize them and pre-emptively address possible mainstream concerns about them. Peoples Temple was consistently described, particularly in articles by Leona Tompkies, as belonging to the denomination Disciples of Christ, affirming their ties to respectable mainstream religion. (34) She even notes that on a nationwide tour, Disciples of Christ hosted some of Jones's revival meetings. (35) This reflected the group's official incorporated name--Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ (36)--and was confirmed by the denomination, (37) but it ignored the ongoing conflicts Jones had with Disciples of Christ. In Tompkies's writing, there was also an odd phrase that cropped up regularly; she described Jones's healings as a "sane spiritual healing service that works in conjunction with medical science." Her choice to label a healing service as "sane" (she also used "calm") seems to have been her method to dismiss concerns that Peoples Temple's practices were unnatural or suspicious. (38) Her fuller descriptions of the healing services display a lack of critical analysis; Tompkies wrote as a true believer, although it is unclear whether she actually attended services at Peoples Temple or simply relied on reports from members. (39) Temple documents listed Tompkies, along with a wide range of other supporters, as a "PR Person." (40)

Another recurring phrase in writing about Peoples Temple is a reference to them "making the American Dream real." This occurs in multiple sources including the Sun Reporter and the Oakland Post. (41) The context of the phrase was in relation to the interracial nature of Peoples Temple and its work for social and economic equality. The writers implied that Peoples Temple embodied the American Dream by creating a Utopian society in which everyone was equal and the poor had opportunities to make a better life for themselves. They placed Peoples Temple in contrast to the racial upheaval of the previous several years, including widespread race riots such as those in Watts and Detroit. While certainly this reflected Jim Jones's rhetoric and the ideals of many of the members of Peoples Temple, it lacked a critical analysis of the racial dynamics within the group.

Interestingly, positive statements about Peoples Temple occasionally appeared not only in local records but also in national ones. Even the Congressional Record, in 1973, included a lengthy statement to the House of Representatives from California Representative George Brown, lauding Peoples Temple for their commitment to the Constitution. (42) Newspapers outside California, including the Washington Post, reported on a Temple cross-country revival and recruiting trip when they visited locally; (43) that is, Peoples Temple mostly proved interesting to the media outside California when they left that state. Newspapers outside California proved less interested in the group's activities in California. Reporter Charles Krause of the Washington Post stated, "In fact, I think it would be safe to say that in April 1978 no one at the Washington Post--or probably in Washington--had ever heard of the Peoples Temple or Jonestown." (44) While Krause's comment was clearly exaggerated, it expressed the localized nature of critical, or even general, reporting on Peoples Temple--it had not significantly broken into the national consciousness.

The media attitude toward Peoples Temple and Jim Jones turned before the departure to Jonestown; some writers have suggested that this, coupled with pending legal action, was a contributing factor in Jones's decision to leave the United States. (45) A 1977 article in New West magazine by San Francisco Examiner journalists Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy seems to have marked the turning point. (46) Their piece, "Inside Peoples Temple," triggered not only anger and threat of legal action from Jim Jones but also a flurry of articles from the Sun Reporter defending Peoples Temple and denouncing its detractors. (47) Articles about Peoples Temple not specifically focused on a response also added comments defending Peoples Temple from "a politically motivated, neo-McCarthyite smear campaign against their socialist beliefs and their activism." (48) Kilduff and Tracy based their reporting on interviews with former members that Peoples Temple asserted had been asked to leave the group because their behavior or ideology did not align with group values. According to Temple statements, some of the interviewees had advocated the use of violence in furtherance of "extremist ideologies" and may have been "provocateurs" who joined the organization with the intent of sabotaging the church and its activities. (49)

Not surprisingly, these former members provided the reporters with a negative perspective on Peoples Temple and Jim Jones. The New West article called for an investigation into Peoples Temple for abuse, financial mismanagement, and fraud, and criticized California politicians for uncritically supporting Jones. The article began by describing all the good works that Peoples Temple did in San Francisco, seemingly positively. It raised questions, however, about the appropriateness of the influence Jones seemed to wield in local politics: Can you win office in San Francisco without Jones?" Quoting Assemblyman Willie Brown, the article continued, "In a tight race like the ones George [Mayor Moscone] or Freitas [District Attorney] or Hongisto [Sheriff] had, forget about it." (50)

While it was unsurprising that Peoples Temple and its supporters would strive to discredit the former members speaking out, this does not undermine the criticism of Kilduff and Tracy's methods. Kilduff and Tracy claimed that once news got out that they were writing a critical article on Jim Jones, (51) their office was flooded with calls and letters from Temple members and supporters who urged them not to attack Jones because he was the source of much good in the community. Further, they claim that this campaign by Jones's supporters drew attention that led to another reporter from the San Francisco Examiner also covering this story. It was only once the Examiner publicized the phone calls and letters that the former members approached Kilduff and Tracy with their stories. This leads to a question about their research methods: if Kilduff and Tracy had been working on a story on Peoples Temple for two months before the former members contacted them--and if, as claimed by Peoples Temple, Kilduff and Tracy did not ask insiders for information (52)--what sources were these journalists using to write their story?

The journalists acknowledged that their sources were biased and that they only interviewed about a dozen of the 20,000 members claimed by Peoples Temple at that time. Even if this number was exaggerated, as is likely, and the group only had 3,500-5000 members, it still represented a tiny fraction. The accusations made by the former members included physical beating and verbal abuse for infractions, "encouraging [members] to turn over their money and property," and instructing members to write incriminating statements about themselves, including falsehoods. (53) While these alleged acts are deplorable, it is harder to judge whether they are illegal or what degree of responsibility and free choice remained with the members who stayed. It is not uncommon for churches to require a tithe from members and for communal groups to share property. Certainly, as Deanna and Elmer Mertle [a.k.a. Al and Jeannie Mills] attested, the barriers to leaving Peoples Temple were much greater if one no longer owned any personal property or held a job outside the group. (54) For others, the knowledge that Jim Jones held signed affidavits from them, in which they confessed embarrassing details, may also have discouraged flight.

Other former members described the ways Jim Jones faked his supposedly miraculous faith healings to bring in new money and members. (55) Still others like Grace Stoen and Laura Cornelious discussed the handling and misuse of money, including government funds, within Peoples Temple. (56) Kilduff and Tracy called for Jim Jones and Peoples Temple to be investigated on the basis of these claims by former members. In a Sun Reporter article, Mike Prokes of Peoples Temple questioned the journalists' use of sources and asked why they avoided coming to Peoples Temple for information. (57) District Attorney Joe Freitas did order an investigation of the group with his deputy district attorney, Temple member Tim Stoen [estranged husband of Grace], as the department liaison, only to conclude that there was no wrongdoing. After Jonestown, his investigation came under fire for ignoring warning signs that might have allowed law enforcement to intervene earlier, and his administration was accused of being in Jim Jones's pocket. These criticisms tainted Freitas's legacy to the very end. (58)

Similarly, decades after Jonestown, some journalists writing articles on the various anniversary dates used the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight to criticize San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk for writing a letter supporting Jim Jones to President Jimmy Carter in February 1978, in response to the ongoing criticisms of Peoples Temple that the New West article had unleashed. (59) Milk addressed Carter because his wife, Rosalynn, had spoken at Peoples Temple during a campaign stop in San Francisco in 1976. Rosalynn Carter had been very impressed at the time with the group's outreach work in the community. (60) Some historians have reported that according to those close to Milk, the letter does not read like his work but rather as a piece of Peoples Temple propaganda, although they did not question the signature. (61) The criticisms of Milk came, it must be noted, as part of a larger criticism of his accomplishments, largely in response to plans to honor him. Journalists beginning with Kilduff and Tracy and continuing for decades painted Milk, like Freitas and Mayor George Moscone, as politicians indebted to Jim Jones for their electoral successes. (62)

Attacks written by an Episcopalian preacher named Lester Kinsolving actually preceded the Kilduff and Tracy article, however half of them remained unpublished, and they do not seem to have excited the same interest in criticizing and investigating Peoples Temple. Lester Kinsolving exposed Jim Jones and Peoples Temple in an eight-part series of articles beginning in 1972. The San Francisco Examiner published his first four articles, but the paper declined to publish the remaining four. One has to question why the Examiner dropped the series--was there a lack of interest, was the paper concerned about Kinsolving's questionable evidence, or did Peoples Temple or its supporters exert some sort of pressure on the paper? Kinsolving raised concerns about Jones's growing political influence, the questionable use of "impressively armed body guards," and the financial holdings of Peoples Temple. (63) The first two articles expressed little criticism--instead Kinsolving described what he observed, leaving the conclusions to his readers. In the third article, unlike the previous two, Kinsolving explicitly criticized Jones and Tim Stoen, calling them out for misleading the members and the public about Jones's "gifts" and his motives.

The final published article marked a distinct difference in Kinsolving's tone, moving from the cynical note struck in the earlier pieces to combative attacks on Jones, Stoen, and Peoples Temple.

Perhaps the following quote proved the most indicative statement in this article: "What is of utmost concern is the atmosphere of terror created in the community by so large and aggressive a group, which effect is implemented by Stoen's civil office." (64) This change in tone may have contributed to the Examiner abandoning the series, or it could be that Kinsolving was unable to excite interest in the story. The considerable gap of four years between these articles and the New West expose suggest the latter.

Kinsolving was quick to attack Peoples Temple, and certainly the accusations were serious and worthy of investigation. However, Kinsolving threw his articles together very quickly with no time to examine what action may have been taken by law enforcement. He noted that the Disciples of Christ had declined to investigate Jones for financial mismanagement or fraudulent claims about healing. He also acknowledged that the charter for Jones's corporation had expired in Indiana, although not because of any wrongdoing but because they no longer filed paperwork there. Was the Examiner reluctant to publish this article because of the protests by Peoples Temple, as Kinsolving suggests, or were there also concerns about Kinsolving's rushed reporting leaving the paper open to lawsuits?

Four more years elapsed without a major expose of Peoples Temple. Detractors such as Tom Kinsolving are quick to claim that the media was cowardly and the authorities corrupt, and this may have been the case. Regardless of the reason, Peoples Temple and Jim Jones successfully managed to hold a high civic profile while simultaneously evading major criticism in the press for several years, even as they expanded their activities into San Francisco and Los Angeles. It was not until the New West article by Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy that the relationship between Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and the press began to unravel. After that piece, "Insides Peoples Temple," came out in the first week of August 1977, Jones's discourse reflected more and more his growing paranoia and contributed, along with a custody lawsuit and an ongoing investigation by the Internal Revenue Service, to his decision to move the majority of Peoples Temple to Guyana. Tim Stoen, the assistant district attorney and formerly a close associate of Jim Jones, underwent a dramatic change of heart from the steadfast lieutenant depicted by Lester Kinsolving in 1972 to a defector who sued Jim Jones for custody of the child his former wife, Grace, had given birth to while a member of the Temple, disputing Jones's parentage of the boy.

Kilduff and Tracy appear to have broken the hold Peoples Temple had on press coverage in California. New articles from a variety of newspapers appeared, calling for investigation and drawing attention to concerns and criticisms raised about Jones and his followers. (65) After the New West article, press coverage became more critical of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones, partly because the concerns highlighted by Kilduff and Tracy raised public interest and awareness but largely due to the efforts of Concerned Relatives. This newly formed group of former members and relatives of Peoples Temple members became alarmed because of the newly leaked insider details and Jones's decision to move the group to Guyana, beyond the reach of the law and their families. Concerned Relatives used the press to pressure Jones into reacting foolishly and giving the authorities just cause to break up Peoples Temple. (66) Legitimized by their alliance with Congressman Leo Ryan, Concerned Relatives directed negative information to journalists, aiding them in creating a relentless barrage of criticism against Jones and Peoples Temple, particularly focusing on their concern that Jones brainwashed and controlled his followers, keeping them against their will. As John Hall and other scholars have pointed out, this narrative conveniently overlooked the adult members' rights to privacy and autonomy and denied them agency and the right to live and worship as they chose. (67) Catherine Wessinger went a step further, blaming "anti-cult" prejudices against alternative religious movements, and communal groups more broadly, for dehumanizing members and legitimizing harsh, often violent action against them even when it was illegal and/or not based on verifiable evidence. (68) President Jimmy Carter provided a counter to this prevalent urge: "I don't think that we ought to have an overreaction because of the Jonestown tragedy by injecting Government into trying to control people's religious beliefs, and I believe that we also don't need to deplore on a nationwide basis the fact that the Jonestown cult so-called was typical of America, because it's not." (69)

Reading the public discourse on Peoples Temple and Jim Jones after the tragedy at Jonestown, one could understandably conclude that the press had ignored or overlooked concerns about the group's activities. Examination of published coverage of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones reveals that while initial reporting was positive and supportive, this changed dramatically after the 1977 Kilduff and Tracy expose in New West. Pushed and fed information by Concerned Relatives, the California media in particular kept up relentless on the government to investigate Jones and Peoples Temple and kept public attention on the group. Whether this contributed to Jim Jones's paranoia and the tragic decisions made in Jonestown is debatable, but ultimately the press had a significant role both before and after this tragedy in shaping negative public perceptions of Jim Jones, Peoples Temple, and more broadly, new religious movements and communal societies.

(1) Don G. Campbell, "'Given Up by Church,' Monkeys are Saved 'Spiritually' Anyhow," Indianapolis Star, April 10, 1954, 1, 9.

(2) "Peoples Temple, Full Gospel," Indianapolis News, September 17, 1955, 4; September 24, 1955, 5; Indianapolis Star, January 7, 1956, 8; January 14, 1956, 8; January 21, 1956, 8. Ads continued on a weekly basis.

(3) "Peoples Temple, Full Gospel," Indianapolis Star, January 14, 1956, 8.

(4) "Peoples Temple," Indianapolis Star, June 11, 1955, 10.

(5) "First Peoples Temple, Full Gospel," Indianapolis Star, September 24, 1955, 5.

(6) "Peoples Temple Will Be Host to the Great William Branham, Brotherhood-Healing Crusade," Indianapolis News, June 9, 1956.

(7) "Peoples Temple," Indianapolis News, December 28, 1957, 5; February 1, 1958, 5. Identical ads appeared in both the News and the Star at this point.

(8) "Racial Marriage Forum Planned," Indianapolis News, March 14, 1959, 5.

(9) "Joint Funeral Planned For 4 Crash Victims," Indianapolis News, May 11, 1959, 11; "Auto Crash Takes Six Lives," Indianapolis Star, May 11, 1959, 1; Don Reeder, "A Cross to Bear, Says Pastor," Indianapolis Star, May 11, 1959, 1.

(10) "Six Are Killed in Indiana Crash," Baltimore Sun, May 11, 1957, 10.

(11) "Baptist Church Building Dedication Set," Baltimore Sun, July 20, 1957, 20.

(12) "This Tavern Permit was Gained Despite a Vigorous Opposition," Indianapolis Star, August 18, 1959, 16; Judy Williams, "Meeting is Asked on Kindergartens," Indianapolis News, April 8, 1960, 27.

(13) "Names in the News," Indianapolis News, January 27, 1961, 13.

(14) "Names in the News," Indianapolis News, September 8, 1961, 21.

(15) "Peoples Temple One of Three to Get Grants," Indianapolis Star, November 10, 1961, 13.

(16) Isabel Boyer, "Free Restaurant Helps the Needy," Indianapolis Star, January 27, 1963, 8.

(17) "Peoples Temple Taking Part in Fiesta '69," Ukiah Daily Journal, May 15, 1969, 5; Peoples Temple Schedule Guest Speaker," Ukiah Daily Journal, May 2, 1969, 3; Peoples Temple Selected for Retreat, Study," Ukiah Daily Journal, May 9, 1969, 3; "Peoples Temple Host Visiting Church Groups," Ukiah Daily Journal, June 13, 1969, 3.

(18) "Statement that Will Hopefully Bring Understanding to the Principle," Ukiah Daily Journal, May 10, 1968, 10.

(19) "An Open Letter to Rev. Jones, His Family and His Church Members," Ukiah Daily Journal, July 8, 1968, 7.

(20) Peoples Temple untitled announcement, Ukiah Daily Journal, July 12, 1968, 3.

(21) "Thank You," Ukiah Daily Journal, December 13, 1968, 3.

(22) "Minister Reviled, Threatened," Ukiah Daily Journal, March 31, 1969, 1.

(23) "Charges Filed Against Ukiah Hairstylist," Ukiah Daily Journal, April 8, 1969, 1.

(24) Mike Williams, "Redwood Valley Has Unique 'Working' Church Group," Ukiah Daily Journal, July 3, 1969, 3.

(25) Mike Williams, "Children Learn Pastor's Home Is 'Pet Haven,'" Ukiah Daily Journal, December 16, 1969, 3.

(26) "'Jim' Jones Due," San Francisco Examiner, July 11, 1970, 23; "Temple Bake Sale Saturday," Ukiah Daily Journal, April 23, 1971, 6; "Temple's Fleet Grows," Ukiah Daily Journal, November 12, 1971, 8.

(27) "Bay Area Church News and Activities," Sun Reporter, August 28, 1971, 25.

(28) Sun Reporter, February 10, 1973, 16.

(29) Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982), 306.

(30) Sacramento Observer, March 6, 1974, B-5.

(31) Sun Reporter, June 22, 1974, 8.

(32) Sun Reporter, July 14, 1976, 28.

(33) Peoples Temple, "Peoples Temple Human Service Ministry Offers $2000 to Meet Demands for Patricia Hearst," February 13, 1974, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, accessed March 7, 2018,; Peoples Temple, "News Release," January 31, 1974, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, accessed March 7, 2018,

(34) "Peoples Church Supports Plight of Condemned Men," Sun Reporter, June 22, 1974, 8; "Jim Jones Declines Human Rights Post," Sun Reporter, March 27, 1975, 5; "Peoples Temple Boat Serves the Needy," Sun Reporter, March 22, 1975, 26; "Peoples Temple: Actualizing the Bill of Rights," Sun Reporter, August 14, 1976, 28.

(35) Leona Tompkies, "The Church Section: Bay Area Church News and Activities," Sun Reporter, October 28, 1976, 44.

(36) Joseph L. Flatley, "Laura Johnston Kohl and the Politics of Peoples Temple," Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, accessed February 28, 2018,

(37) David Johnston and William Endicott, "Jones, Peoples Temple, From the Beginning a History of Controversy," Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1978, B-22.

(38) Leona Tompkies, "The Church Section: Bay Area Church News and Activities," Sun Reporter, December 6, 1975, 30; "Peoples Temple: Actualizing the Bill of Rights," 28; Tompkies, "The Church Section: Bay Area Church News and Activities," Sun Reporter, August 28, 1971, 25.

(39) Leona Tompkies, Sun Reporter, March 30, 1974, 26; Tompkies, "The Church Section: Bay Area Church News and Activities," Sun Reporter, August 28, 1971, 25.

(40) "Codebook Text," Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, accessed February 21, 2018,

(41) Oakland Post, October 5, 1975, 3; "People's Temple Makes Friends Across the Nation," Sun Reporter, September 7, 1974, 30.

(42) Representative Brown, speaking on MM. 1-50, 93th Cong., 1st sess., Congressional Record (June, 1973): MM 89-4286.

(43) "The Welcome Tourists," Washington Post, August 18, 1973, A14.

(44) Charles Krause, foreword to Deborah Layton, Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple (New York: Anchor Books, 1978), xi.

(45) Rebecca Moore, "Is the Canon on Jonestown Closed?" Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 4, no. 1 (2000): 8; ""Inside Peoples Temple": The New West article by Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy," Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, accessed February 28, 2018,; Judith Weightman, Making Sense of Jonestown (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellon Press, 1983), 41.

(46) Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy, "Inside Peoples Temple," New West, August 1, 1977.

(47) Peter Magnani, "Peoples Temple Enraged by Critical Article," Sun Reporter, July 27 1977, 3 [note that this response appeared before the New West article, referring to it as coming out early this week]; Thomas Fleming, "Thomas Fleming's Weekly Report," Sun Reporter, August 4, 1977, 7; "Strong Support Shown for Peoples Temple," Sun Reporter, August 4, 1977, 3; "Thomas Fleming's Weekly Report," Sun Reporter, August 25, 1977, 7.

(48) "Peoples Temple Denies Guyana Move," Sun Reporter, August 18, 1977, 4.

(49) Magnani, "Peoples Temple Enraged by Critical Article," 3.

(50) Kilduff and Tracy, "Inside Peoples Temple," 30.

(51) Raul Ramirez, "The Inner Workings of Peoples Temple," San Francisco Chronicle-Examiner Magazine, July 17, 1977.

(52) Magnani, "Peoples Temple Enraged by Critical Article," 3.

(53) Kilduff and Tracy, "Inside Peoples Temple," 34.

(54) Ibid., 34.

(55) Ibid., 35.

(56) Ibid., 36.

(57) Fleming, "Thomas Fleming's Weekly Report."

(58) "Joseph Freitas Jr., 66; S.F. District Attorney in 'Twinkie Defense' Case," Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2006, accessed February 28, 2018,

(59) Harvey Milk, "Letter to President Jimmy Carter," February 19, 1978, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, accessed March 4, 2018,; Daniel J. Flynn, "Drinking Harvey Milk's Kool-Aid," City Journal, May 21, 2009.

(60) Tim Reiterman, "30 Years After, the Legacy of Jonestown," Associated Press, November 16, 2008, accessed March 4, 2018,

(61) Michael Bellefontaine and Dora Bellefountaine, A Lavender Look at the Temple: A Gay Perspective of the Peoples Temple (iUniverse, 2011), 50.

(62) Art Harris, "Jim Jones," Washington Post, November 20, 1978, accessed March 4, 2018,; Reiterman, "30 Years After, the Legacy of Jonestown."

(63) Lester Kinsolving, "The Prophet Who Raises the Dead," San Francisco Examiner, September 17, 1972, 1.

(64) Ibid.

(65) Wallace Turner, "Peoples Temple Leader Philosopher or Charlatan?" San Bernardino Sun, September 3, 1977, 10; "George Moscone Says His Office Will Not Investigate Jones," San Francisco Chronicle, July 27, 1977; E. Cahill Maloney, "Temple Dominated School," San Francisco Progress, August 3, 1977.

(66) John Hall, Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1987), 230.

(67) John Hall, "Jonestown and Bishop Hill: Continuities and Disjunctures in Religious Conflict," Communal Societies 8 (1988): 86; Timothy Miller, "'Cults' and Intentional Communities: Working Through Some Complicated Issues," in Communities Directory, The Guide to Intentional Communities and Cooperative Living, 2016 Edition (Rutledge, MO: The Fellowship for Intentional Community, 2016), 29-31.

(68) Catherine Wessinger, "Religious Intolerance--Not 'Cults'--Is the Problem," Communities: Journal of Cooperative Living 88 (Fall 1995): 32-33.

(69) "Year in Review 1978--Jonestown Massacre," United Press International, accessed March 7, 2018,
COPYRIGHT 2018 Communal Studies Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Coulthard, Cheryl
Publication:Communal Societies
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Dec 1, 2018
Previous Article:Communal Learning in the Socialist Context of Jonestown.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters