Jonestown Filmmakers Missing the Mark

The phone calls about Peoples Temple and the Jonestown, Guyana tragedy began coming in last spring. Young people who hadn't been born when the tragedy happened November 18, 1978 asked the same question: "Didn't NBC shoot more than 18 minutes of footage inside Jonestown?" They represented companies from the United States, Canada, South Africa and most recently Australia.

As the NBC Nightly News producer who began shooting a series on destructive cults in March, 1978, the story had come full circle. I personally screened more than three hours of dramatic footage shot inside Jonestown by the cameraman who died doing his job. What happened to it? These queries started my investigation of Peoples Temple once again. In two years all the classified material about the massacre is supposed to be released to the public. The government has kept their secrets well for almost 30 years.

For me, the story began May 2, 1978. My crew and I were filming the Synanon cult's property from a deserted public road in Marshall, California, when armed men, women and children with shaved heads held us captive for three hours. The story flashed across the AP wire, phoned in by Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Mitchell, owner of the Point Reyes Light weekly. My employer, NBC News, ignored the story. I didn't understand why, but it was a foreshadowing of what would happen when my far more dangerous story about Peoples Temple was ready for air in October, 1978.

The war between me and the management of NBC and its lawyers had begun. What I didn't know at the time was that our new corporate president Fred Silverman was calling the shots. And Les Crystal, the new young president of NBC News, was doing Silverman's bidding and caving in to corporate pressure. My work on Peoples Temple and the destructive cults was in serious jeopardy as was I, the first woman investigative producer on NBC Nightly News. But I didn't know it.

Synanon, I learned later, had taught such cults as Peoples Temple and Scientology how to manage the media through intimidation and litigation. (Two members of Synanon would be arrested only weeks before the Jonestown massacre for putting a live rattlesnake in a critic's mailbox, almost killing him.) I was able to get a watered down series about Synanon on Nightly News that June though NBC lawyers toned down the reports to avoid a lawsuit. After the series aired, Les Crystal made his first move to kill any further work on the "destructive cults," which now were calling themselves religions. Only the I.R.S.'s grave concern about cults avoiding taxes by labeling themselves a religion stopped Crystal from killing the project outright. It wasn't clear to me why Crystal wanted to kill these reports. So I got to work.

I interviewed former Peoples Temple members and Concerned Relatives who told stories about brainwashing, drugs, guns, beatings and suicide drills called "white nights." They also told these stories to the State Department and U.S. government officials in socialist Guyana, where the Reverend Jim Jones had moved almost 1,000 of his followers. Many in this colony feared their loved ones would die if "outsiders" tried to enter Jonestown.

My interviews were completed in October. I wanted to get the Peoples Temple story on the air as quickly as possible. California Congressman Leo Ryan announced he was going to Jonestown in November to see for himself what was happening to the people in his district. I was warned by Concerned Relatives and former members that the trip would end in disaster unless Ryan was provided with heavy security. I believed NBC's airing of my dramatic material would help provide that security

"NBC BOSS LIFE THREATENED" proclaimed the New York Post banner headline November 2, 1978. "GUARD ON TV CHIEF."

Fred Silverman, I later learned, was so upset being stalked, the mass cult picketing, written death threats (that were sent to the FBI without me knowing about them), the Synanon rattlesnake attack, and cult followers reportedly getting into his apartment building and threatening him and his family that he let news management know my report shouldn't air. Instead, Congressman Ryan's Jonestown trip in November would be covered as a news event by a California crew rather than as a more hard-hitting investigative report. I tried to reach the reporter. My calls were not returned. I felt like a pariah rather than a journalist who had unearthed an important story. On November 13th, the NBC crew passed through our New York office en route to Guyana. Again, the reporter did not return my persistent calls. And then, what had been predicted in my spiked report, happened. On November 18th, 918 people -- including hundreds of children and senior citizens -- were murdered. Some committed suicide. Congressman Ryan, the NBC reporter and cameraman, a photographer and a Temple member who wanted to leave were assassinated on the airstrip by Jones' enforcers, firing from a truck sent by their demented leader. Jones' mass suicide was a massacre, unlike anything in American history. I was told that the original footage was kept under lock and key by NBC's law department and that a dub was bought by the FBI for its own investigation. We were given another set of dubs to edit for air. Only then was I put back on the story -- because I knew the story and the people.

NBC News' failure to air my reports before this tragedy aroused media criticism. Les Crystal replied that "intimidation had nothing to do with his decision to stop the investigation of the destructive cults." He wrote in a bylined article in Variety, January 3, 1979, that NBC had begun some "preliminary filming on the growth and influence of cults in the United States, but there never were any threats made. There never were any demands that we drop the project." He ended by saying that "after much heart-searching and sleepless nights, we have concluded that it was not possible for anyone to foresee the unprecedented events that took place in Guyana." Not possible to foresee the events? I wanted to scream, "You killed the story, Les." But without the evidence I have now, I knew I'd sound like a disgruntled employee kicking the graves of the NBC staffers who died there. I left NBC News voluntarily. Later that year, Les Crystal was fired. Fred Silverman prevailed until 198l. In March of '81 syndicated columnist Jack Anderson got on to information about my suppressed investigation and interviewed people I had worked with, but too much time had elapsed. By then the government had classified everything important. His story died quickly. So when, 28 years later, I started getting calls about missing NBC footage, the story that haunted me for so many years came back in a rush.

The NBC archivist stuck to her story that she had only 18 minutes of Jonestown film. 18 minutes? I had personally screened 30 film cassettes about the destructive cults and at least three hours of dramatic footage shot in Georgetown, Guyana and in Jonestown the week of November 13, 1978. The dramatic confrontational interview with Jim Jones by the poorly prepared, aggressive NBC reporter whose ignorance of danger and Jones' mental condition, made worse by drugs, also was missing. What had happened to the original film? I called the soundman and field producer who survived Jonestown. They corroborated my recollection of the amount of footage shot -- and the interview with Jones. Then I got in touch again with the archivist at NBC. She stuck by the 18-minute story but would "keep looking." I told her I viewed a pirated version of the NBC coverage that ran over three hours. Nevertheless, no one from the network archives could give me an answer about that missing film. The NBC lawyer assigned to the Jonestown project "couldn't remember." (The Jonestown Institute, which collects primary source information on Peoples Temple -- and which provided me with this pirated tape -- sent me proof they had obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that the FBI is in possession of 12 hours of footage from NBC. They are suing the FBI for everything.)

Leo Ryan's mother, Autumn, told me in 1981: "We will never get to the bottom of what really happened in Guyana and why Leo died. It's a massive government and intelligence cover-up." Ryan's top aide, the late Joe Holsinger, claimed in testimony before a House Foreign Affairs Committee that the C.I.A. had conducted a covert operation in Guyana, and that Jonestown was part of it. Ryan had co-sponsored the Hughes-Ryan Amendment -- the law which requires prior congressional approval of all CIA covert operations. CIA operations in Guyana remain classified.

I didn't realize the extent of the media cover-up until I began revisiting these issues 28 years later. How could NBC lose -- or worse, destroy historical footage of an event like Jonestown? Why? And what about my interviews with the people who predicted from firsthand experience what would happen if the Ryan party entered Jonestown? The documentaries aired recently as the anniversary approaches are a revisionist history of the event. "Lovely people. Tragic story."

The real story has yet to be told and must be told for at least three reasons. First, there's the matter of accountability for 918 needless deaths. Second, there's the issue of journalistic responsibility. Those who made these fateful decisions at NBC, including former company president Fred Silverman, former NBC News president Les Crystal and NBC lawyers, are still alive. Finally, at a time when the media is criticized for missing the truth about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and for its own lack of transparency, telling this story is not only a way to come clean but a cautionary tale for all news organizations.