Could the Jonestown Massacre have been prevented? In the 1970s the media and political establishment decided that the public shouldn’t hear about cult leader Jim Jones’ abuses.
Be Scofield is a prominent cult reporter whose work has been cited by New York Times, Washington Post, People, Daily Beast, The Guardian, Netflix, Dr. Phil, Playboy and more. Contact: email@example.com / Follow on Facebook
May 11, 2021
In 1976, when reporter Julie Smith wrote a critical expose on cult leader Jim Jones it was canceled by the San Francisco Chronicle. Instead, a censored, highly edited and positive story was run. Jones had become deeply embedded in the liberal political establishment, with Mayor George Moscone making him the chairman of the Housing Authority and Harvey Milk using his powers to protect Jones.
“Jones was a master at drawing liberals and idealists who yearned for a better world into his web,” writes author David Talbot, author of Season of the Witch. “He could smell the feverish longing for deliverance that wafted off them, and he made them believe he was their salvation.”
Chronicle editor Steve Gavin, who was Julie Smith’s boss, was one of those left idealists. He became close with Jones, writing personal letters, and conducted favors which Jones reciprocated. In one exchange, Gavin told Jones he hoped the press would be “compassionate” towards him. Gavin, writes Talbot, “single-handedly made sure that the city’s leading newspaper did not shine a harsh spotlight on the leader.”
Julie Smith’s colleague, Marshall Kilduff, was concerned by the censoring of the Jones story so he investigated himself. When Kilduff went to a Temple service, to his shock, he saw Gavin and a fellow reporter in attendance. He knew then why the critical story had been killed. “As [Kilduff] tracked down sources, temple members kept close watch on him, digging through his garbage and reporting his every move to Gavin,” Talbot writes.
In 1972 Jones had sent 150 cult members to picket the San Francisco Examiner over their critical series on him. They canceled it shortly after, only printing four of the planned eight articles. Jones then funded grants to newspapers in an effort to win them over.
After the series was canceled, the only reporting on Jones published from 1972 to 1977 was positive and covered the “generosity of the church,” writes author Ron Javers. Journalists were courted and charmed by Jones and “politcians loved him” says Gabrielle Greenfield. “He donated to charities, promoted racial equality and could raise large crowds for any political event.” Politicians loved his revolutionary ideology and would do anything to protect it.
San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk was perhaps the closest influential figure to Jones. “My name is cut in stone for you and your people,” he wrote privately to him. Talbot says Milk was “using him for his votes and his support” but was well aware of the cult-like nature of Jones’ group, warning his staff they were “crazy.” Author Daniel Flynn explains the relationship:
“Before the congregants of the Peoples Temple drank Jim Jones’s deadly Kool-Aid, Harvey Milk and much of San Francisco’s ruling class had already figuratively imbibed. Milk occasionally spoke at Jones’s San Francisco–based headquarters, promoted Jones through his newspaper columns, and defended the Peoples Temple from its growing legion of critics. Jones provided conscripted “volunteers” for Milk’s campaigns to distribute leaflets by the tens of thousands. Milk returned the favor by abusing his position of public trust on behalf of Jones’s criminal endeavors.”
Milk intervened when the government was going to stop Jones from continuing to collect the social security checks of his members. He did so after reporting had clearly documented Jones’ abuses and other politicians and figures had distanced themselves. Milk wrote to president Jimmy Carter saying the commune in Guyana was a beautiful retirement community and that Jones was a man of the “highest character.” Seven months later 900 people died in the Jonestown Massacre.
Seth Barron describes some of the progressive politicians who were in bed with Jones:
“A roster of leaders who remain dominant figures in California politics today embraced Jones publically. Jerry Brown, then and now governor of the state, approvingly visited the Peoples Temple, and Senator Dianne Feinstein, who ascended to the mayoralty upon Moscone’s assassination, joined the Board of Supervisors in honoring Jones. Willie Brown, longtime speaker of the California state assembly, a mayor of San Francisco, and the mentor of Senator Kamala Harris, was especially lavish in his praise of Jones, calling him “a combination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and Chairman Mao.”
Talbot also says Jones supplied Mayor George Moscone with women.
Daniel Flynn also describes the powerful connections Jones had. “Peoples Temple offered the political class votes and volunteers,” he writes. “In return, the Temple received legitimacy. Jones held court with future first lady Rosalynn Carter; two vice presidents, Nelson Rockefeller and Walter Mondale…and Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally of California.”
And assistant District Attorney Tim Stoen was a high ranking member of the cult.
When Kilduff finished the expose, he discovered no newspapers or outlets in town would run a critical story on Jones. “Jones brought crowds, money, and votes…,” writes Greenfield. And the press feared more cult protests and pickets that killed the San Francisco Chronicle series.
In 1977 Rupert Murdoch launched a magazine called New West. They had planned to run Kilduff’s story but Jones’ followers complained to the editor Kevin Starr that it’d hurt their “humanitarian efforts” and it was canceled. Only after Starr was replaced by Rosalie Wright did New West finally agree to publish the story. The cult got word, however, and bombarded New West with 50 letters a day and phone calls. They also contacted all of their advertisers. California’s Lieutenant Governer Mervyn Dymally even tried to persuade the magazine out of publishing the article. Fortunately, New West stood up to the political establishment and the mob attacks trying to silence them.
On August, 1st 1977, New West published the groundbreaking story “Inside People’s Temple,” by Kilduff and Phil Tracy. However, Jones’ followers had already been building their commune in Guyana for several years. And the night before the story came out, someone believed to be from Mayor Moscone’s office, called Jones and read, in full, an advance copy they had received. It chronicled extensive abuse, fake healings and cult behavior. Jones fled to Guyana before the story was published in the morning.
The media establishment, emboldened by politicians, decided that the public shouldn’t hear about cult leader Jim Jones’ abuses. They feared loss of political and financial capital and a cult mob. In doing so they canceled a story of extreme significance. One can only imagine the dramatic difference had scrutiny from politicians and sustained reporting been allowed.