New Religious Movements and the Biased Media
What happened in Jonestown? How could “sensible people” follow the “rantings of a crazed lunatic?” The questions and the simplified answers that are provided by the media coverage of Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate perhaps contributed to their downfall. The feeling of public persecution is a central theme of many new religious movements, and the negative publicity of suicide cults only fuels the fear of other like-minded religious groups. The misleading definitions the media provided for the how, what and why of these new religious movements were symptomatic of the media bias against all such movements. Through examination of the print media response immediately following both mass suicides, I will expose the hollow definitions and explanations provided for tragedies that were much more complex. Moreover, although the Jonestown Suicide occurred twenty years before the Heaven’s Gate suicides in March of 1997, coverage remained ignorant and simplistic of the critical differences between movements, and perhaps exacerbated their cultural alienation.
My research of the media response to the Jonestown suicides concentrates on the coverage of the tragedy in the New York Times because the newspaper is one of the most widely read American newspapers, replete with religion “experts.” Through the coverage in the Times alone, the common response followed a path of initial confusion that eventually led to unoriginal and uncomplicated answers for the how and why these people followed Jim Jones to their death.
The initial coverage in the New York Times exemplifies how the facts of the suicide trickled slowly out of the jungle of Jonestown, Guyana. The day after the suicides, Sunday, November 19, the New York Times featured a headline that proclaimed “Coast Congressman Believed Slain Investigating Commune in Guyana.” One small article that day, described how Jim Jones had moved to Guyana primarily for the custody of a baby born to a married woman. The following Monday, a larger headline described how “Guyana Official Reports 300 Dead at Religious Sect’s Jungle Temple.” A father of one woman living in Jonestown revealed how all the members had written undated suicide notes while still in the United States and had staged mass suicide rehearsals. “They will be all dead by tomorrow,” he predicted. Another article on Monday detailed how the “Deaths in Guyana Threaten Sect’s California Organization.” Members of the People’s Temple in California had read a statement on Sunday that declared, “Rev. Jim Jones has always deplored violence…and whatever the circumstances of the airstrip incident it is not the kind of action anyone in the temple would precipitate.” The article also mentioned that, according to an interview with his wife, Marceline, Jim Jones did not believe in Christianity but was instead a Marxist.
This important distinction of Jones’ political views began a discussion that would continue in...