CNN’s Brian Stelter over the weekend nudged Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) into comparing the murderer of over 900 people in Guyana with the 45th president of the United States.
“You look at Donald Trump, charismatic leader, who was able to continue to talk in terms that appealed to those who were disaffected, disillusioned, and who were looking for something — much like those who became part of Jim Jones’s congregation, the People’s Temple,” Speier told Stelter. “They were lost souls. And the only difference between Jim Jones and Donald Trump is the fact that we now have social media, so all these people can find themselves in ways that they couldn’t find themselves before. He basically was a merchant of deceit — both of them merchants of deceit. Both of them making people not look at facts, not think independently, and sowed a story for them that was indeed destructive.”
Is social media really “the only difference” between them?
While Speier 43 years ago earned the right to any opinion of Jim Jones by taking five bullets as a congressional aide on the landing strip outside Jonestown, she knows better. The people who shot her, and murdered her boss, Congressman Leo Ryan, called themselves the Red Brigades. And she knows Jones ginned up hatred of his sheltered followers against her heroic boss by describing the Bay Area Democrat as “this reactionary, right-wing congressperson.” He then orchestrated a mass murder that he called “revolutionary suicide,” the name borrowed from a book by Black Panther Huey Newton. The last words Jones spoke to his followers on the death tape explained, “We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”
The world did not see it that way. But, as I document in my book Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco, for years leading to Jonestown Speier’s party and Stelter’s profession portrayed this Communist madman in a flattering manner. Before Jones’s poor followers drank the Kool-Aid in South America, powerful Democrats and journalists effectively drank the Kool-Aid in San Francisco. They did this because Jones provided volunteers, picketing outrage mobs, letter-writing campaigns, religious cover for their policies, busloads of voters (legitimate and otherwise), and other services to progressive causes and candidates.
San Francisco Mayor George Moscone appointed Jones to the city’s Housing Commission Authority, where he quickly became chairman, overseeing thousands of public housing units. After Jones had rejected an earlier entreaty to join his administration, Moscone stated that “Reverend Jones examines his conscience more thoroughly than anyone I know.”
Harvey Milk, a sometime congregant of Peoples Temple who ran interference for it when controversy arose in 1977 and most of the group suddenly migrated en masse to the Guyanese jungle, wrote President Jimmy Carter that “Rev. Jones is widely known in the minority communities here and elsewhere as a man of the highest character, who has undertaken constructive remedies for social problems which have been amazing in their scope and effectiveness.” The letter, one of several he wrote to powerful leaders to portray Jones heroically, sought to shoo the State Department away from intervening in a custody case. The San Francisco supervisor portrayed the 6-year-old boy’s mother as a blackmailer and his father as a teller of “bold faced lies” in his letter to the president, whose sister already knew Jones and whose wife was introduced at a rally by Jones during the 1976 campaign. The pressure campaign worked. The State Department refused to intervene and the boy died with his kidnapper in Jonestown.
Willie Brown, former speaker of the California assembly, mayor of San Francisco, and beau of Kamala Harris, called Jones a “highly trusted brother in the struggle for liberation” in a letter lobbying Fidel Castro to grant the cult leader a state visit to Cuba. Brown presented Jones at a celebratory dinner for him in 1976 as a combination of Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and Chairman Mao.
The press carried the cult leader’s water. The Los Angeles Herald named him “Humanitarian of the Year” for 1975. Herb Caen, later awarded a Pulitzer as the “conscience” of San Francisco, essentially acted as a flack for Jones. When reporter Lester Kinsolving attempted to expose the Peoples Temple leader, The San Francisco Examiner pulled his series midway through its eight-part run and other journalists ridiculed him. “Jim Jones has been subjected to vicious attack by a couple of people who should be ashamed to call themselves reporters,” Paul Avery, portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the film Zodiac, explained to a Temple member in an allusion to Kinsolving. He added: “I have yet to find one shred of evidence backing up anything bad that has been said against him. In fact, most everyone I’ve contacted has had nothing but good words about Jim Jones and his work.” It went on like that.
Strangely, Stelter, increasingly the mouthpiece for CNN management, seems oblivious to the fact that the founder of his network married a former Peoples Temple member. “I also recommit myself to your congregation as an active and full participant — not only for myself, but because I want my two children to have the experience,” Jane Fonda wrote Jim Jones after attending a Peoples Temple service in San Francisco. And Stelter’s former employer, The New York Times, bizarrely claimed immediately after the carnage that “Mr. Jones had preached a blend of fundamentalist Christianity and social activism.” In fact, the preacher of “fundamentalist Christianity” instructed his followers, as two confirmed to me in interviews for Cult City, to use the Bible as toilet paper.
The media now as then commits itself to distorting the reality of Jim Jones.
Speier told Stelter she witnessed “in my own colleagues in Congress” parallels to Peoples Temple members. “They may not know they’re in a cult,” she explained. “But, in fact, if they cannot think independently anymore, if they cannot look at the truth and speak the truth, they are, I think, exhibiting cult-like behavior.”
Progressives in politics and the press empowered Jim Jones. More than four decades after he induced more than 900 of his left-wing followers to take a deadly elixir of cyanide and Flavor Aid, Jim Jones again manages to lend himself to their agenda.