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News of American history’s worst mass killing of American citizens, besides 9-11, first reached me 25 years ago in a radio news report.
Not long after news of the horror in Guyana on Nov. 18, 1978, I received a phone call from the FBI informing me of their discovery that I was number two on the “hit list” of the Disciples of Christ Christian Church’s pastor of the Peoples Temple, the Rev. Jim Jones.
This ordained monster – who caused the slaughter of his mostly mesmerized disciples in Guyana – could so easily have been stopped before they were killed.
That, instead, they died is an eternal moral indictment of both the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as the dozens of other metropolitan dailies and other media to whom I pleaded to send their own reporter to investigate, if they had any doubts about the evidence I mailed them.
The Examiner killed the last four of the eight stories I wrote in cooperation with Carolyn Pickering, a courageous reporter of the Indianapolis Star, who knew Jones before he moved from Indiana to California. The Star censored none of her reports.
Then, the Examiner sent me back to Ukiah, Calif., to seek further evidence – this, as I learned, was at the risk of my life.
The Chronicle’s late columnist Herb Caen, and its late city editor, Abe Melinkoff, could have exposed Jim Jones when San Francisco’s Mayor George Moscone appointed him to head the city’s department of Human Rights and Housing. But they did not – among the reasons why are because Jones had a convert in Steve Gavin, a Chronicle assistant city editor, and another convert in the Chronicle-Examiner composition department.
This latter convert telephoned Jones in the middle of the night when he saw my fifth article. And this led to Jones creating the biggest picket line since the 1936 San Francisco Longshoreman’s strike.
I remember, a year later, encountering Chronicle publisher Charles Theriot in New York and telling him: “You’ve got blood on your hands!”
There is much more blood on the hands of the Hearst Newspapers’ flagship, the San Francisco Examiner – which Hearst sold when it bought the Chronicle. The Examiner is now a free tabloid, almost devoid of staff, and well on its way to a well-deserved oblivion.
There were so many other media to whom I personally pleaded to send their own reporters to Ukiah and investigate if the evidence I sent them was sufficient.
They include the Washington Post, Washington Star, Baltimore Sun, New York Times, AP, UPI, the then widely read columnist Jack Anderson, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Religion Newswriter’s Association and Sigma Delta Chi.
Of these dozens to whom I pleaded, not one of them followed up. And only one of them apologized as the Guyana death toll came in . He was, at that time, Jack Anderson’s assistant. Today, he is Fox News anchorman Brit Hume.
In my office, I have a framed citation, a tribute from one of the bravest women I have ever known named Brenda Ganatos, who, with 15 other residents of Ukiah, Calif., were, at the risk of their lives, my sources while the Peoples Temple was located in that Northern California town.
From the standpoint of what is most meaningful in the sight of God, this tribute is more valuable than either of the Pulitzer Prizes for which I was nominated by both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner – but not for my reporting on Jim Jones.
“We commend you as a journalist friend and fellow American for risking your life and job because of your belief in our futile efforts to protect our community, by your relentless investigative reporting and personal guidance … Our pleas for investigative reporting were ignored by our local media and governmental officials …”
I also have a framed copy of Methodist District Superintendent John vs. Moore of Berkeley’s letter of April 21, 1975, in which he writes:
I have known the Rev. Jim Jones and the work of the Peoples Temple for a number of years. I have been impressed with the quality of community life of the Church and of their service to the communities in which they reside.
I have another letter from this endorser of Jim Jones, dated Aug. 2, 1975 – 72 days later – in which Moore threatens to sue me. He has never done so, I suspect, because he knows I would counter sue with abundant evidence.
I wish I could be present at the 25th annual memorial service for those more than 900 victims of Jim Jones. I hope that my daughter, Kathleen, who is my chief researcher on this horrendous tragedy, will be allowed to relay my message and that it will help the media and others to avoid any defense of Jones and his supporters – and avoid ever again the media cover-up which allowed this mass murder. For as the Columbia Journalism Review noted in its editorial:
For years, the Rev. Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple received special treatment from the San Francisco press … the San Francisco Examiner ran four of eight articles written by Lester Kinsolving that exposed Jones as a charlatan back in 1972, then killed the series and wrote a laudatory article about Jones after being threatened with a lawsuit, and after pickets from the Peoples Temple began parading around the building … the San Francisco Chronicle gave Jones even softer treatment.