On Sunday, Sept. 17, 1972, the 643,000 subscribers to the Sunday Chronicle-Examiner and the 366,000 subscribers to the Indianapolis Star read the first of eight installments of a joint exposé of the Peoples Temple of the Rev. Jim Jones.
The Star's Carolyn Pickering had risked her life covering this Disciples of Christ's ordained madman, while he was in Indianapolis. When he moved his flock to Ukiah, Calif., her editor contacted my editor in San Francisco so that as religion editor of the San Francisco Examiner I went up to Ukiah to cover a Jim Jones service.
After one hour, my accompanying photographer, Fran Ortiz, asked me if we could leave as soon as possible – and he would tell me why on the road home.
I did so, and when we were on the Interstate, Fran told me he had a photograph of one of the two people who had stopped us at the church door for 15 minutes of interrogation.
Fran's photograph showed this large man checking his holstered-under-his-vestment .357 magnum.
On the morning that the fourth of my eight stories on the Peoples Temple appeared in print and began cataloguing Jones' criminal activities, an Examiner printer who was a Jones disciple telephoned Ukiah at 2 a.m. This led Jones to awaken 200 of his flock and bus them the 100 miles to San Francisco, so they could mount one of the largest picket lines seen in San Francisco in years.
At the same time, Jones' lawyers threatened a lawsuit so that the Examiner – to its everlasting shame – canceled the remaining four of my stories, which contained the major details of this highly dangerous criminal enterprise.
While all of Carolyn Pickering's articles ran in the Indianapolis Star, no other daily newspaper, or TV station, or network would follow up – or give Jones anything but positive coverage.
Six years later, in Guyana South America's Jonestown, this maniac engaged in what was the third-largest mass murder of Americans after Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
His poisoning and gunning down of 914 men, women and children, including California Rep. Leo Ryan and three reporters, could have been avoided had America's major media not decided to censor what had been reported to more than 1 million people by the Indianapolis Star and the San Francisco Examiner in September of 1972.
In a 30th anniversary remembrance of the Nov. 18, 1978, Jonestown massacre, MSNBC produced a two-hour TV special on Sunday, Nov. 9.
Despite its length – and its reporting of Jones in Indianapolis – MSNBC had no mention whatsoever of the 1972 series of exposés of Jim Jones by both the Indianapolis Star and the San Francisco Examiner – which both of us risked our lives to report.
On Thursday, Nov. 13, CNN presented "Escape From Jonestown," another two-hour program, which also censored what they must have known if they did any research: what was reported in 1972 by the Indianapolis Star and the San Francisco Examiner.
MSNBC featured San Francisco Chronicle reporter Marshall Kilduff, plus Tim Reiterman of the Examiner, Charles Krause of the Washington Post and Fred Francis of NBC News. Not one of these four mentioned what the Indianapolis Star and the San Francisco Examiner had done in exposing this eventual mass murderer – six years before any of them reported anything about him.
Now, Reiterman, writing an article for the at-one-time-objective Associated Press, wrote the following:
"In 1977, as news media were beginning to investigate disciplinary thrashings and abuse in the Temple … "
(News media in San Francisco and Indianapolis began investigating this five years earlier.)
But there were others who stand as a marvelous contrast to almost every daily newspaper and TV station or network in the United States.
From the Columbia Journalism Review in 1979:
"The San Francisco Examiner ran four out of eight articles, written by Lester Kinsolving, that exposed Jones as a charlatan back in 1972, then killed the series and ran a laudatory article about Jones after being threatened with lawsuits and after ... pickets from the Peoples Temple began parading around their building. ... The San Francisco Chronicle gave Jones even softer treatment."
From Religious News Service's John Novotney:
"'I am honored to be No. 2 on this maniac's hit list,' the Rev. Lester Kinsolving said, commenting on a New York Times story listing him as an alleged 'enemy of the Rev. Jim Jones, to be killed following his death.' ... Kinsolving said being on the list 'so effectively exposes the efforts of such big media as the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post to cover up their disastrous failure to follow up on what Carolyn Pickering of the Indianapolis Star and I exposed at length on front pages of two major daily newspapers six years ago.'"
From Northern California's daily newspaper the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat:
"After a near silence of almost 30 years, a former top aide to cult leader Jim Jones has asked for forgiveness for his role in events that led to the deaths of more than 900 people in a mass murder-suicide.
"Tim Stoen, Jones' former chief legal adviser and now a Humboldt County deputy district attorney, sought redemption in the form of a handwritten apology to the first reporter who publicly exposed bizarre behavior at the Peoples Temple's Mendocino County headquarters in the early 1970s.
"'You were right about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. I was totally wrong,' he wrote.
"Stoen concluded his Feb. 11 letter by asking former San Francisco Examiner religion reporter Les Kinsolving to 'forgive me.'
"Stoen, whose Peoples Temple connections still haunt him three decades later, acknowledged writing the two-page letter but said he was reluctant to expand on its contents.
"'It seems everything I say about that time is read one way or the other. I wasn't seeking any attention. I was just doing what I thought was right,' he said.
"Kinsolving, now a Baltimore radio talk-show host, said he was stunned to receive Stoen's apology.
"'After all these years, I was unprepared for his candid admissions,' he said.
"Kinsolving, in 1972, wrote the first critical stories about odd events at the Peoples Temple."
The Press-Democrat also reported:
"Stoen organized cult followers to picket the Examiner's San Francisco office and tried to silence Kinsolving by filing a libel lawsuit, which later was dropped. He and other Temple representatives held news conferences to publicly castigate Kinsolving in front of the nation's media.
"Then-San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and future Assembly Speaker Willie Brown rallied to Jones' side, offering their support to a man who had become entrenched in the city's political establishment.
"For Stoen, who publicly disassociated himself from a cult a year before Jonestown, the Kinsolving letter is his most public admission yet of wrongdoing on behalf of the Peoples Temple. ... Kinsolving said before Jonestown was even settled, he personally contacted '40 of the leading dailies in the U.S., through my fellow religion editors, begging them to send a reporter to Ukiah.'
"'None of them would,' he recalled.
"In his letter, Stoen said Kinsolving was willing to take on Jones and the temple 'when other critics were too fainthearted to do so.'
"'From my heart, I apologize for my mistreatment of you, including organizing the picketing, filing the lawsuit and castigating your motives.'
"Stoen concluded by writing, 'I also pray you can forgive me.'
"Kinsolving said he has."
Finally – and what I cherish most – was the following tribute, written by my chief source in Ukiah, Brenda Ganatos, along with 15 others who are former members of the Peoples Temple – who walked out and risked their lives by providing me information. Their citation reads as follows:
"We wish to express our sincere appreciation for your sole support in our efforts to expose Jim Jones' Peoples Temple 10 years ago, in its earliest stages of madness. We commend you as a journalist, friend and fellow American for risking your life and job because of your belief in our futile attempt to protect our community, by your relentless reporting and personal guidance.
"Although our pleas for investigation were ignored by our local media and government officials, our small group of benefactors and concerned citizens as well as yourself, do not feel the guilt that many reporters and other citizens now feel, since the senseless tragedy occurred in Guyana, knowing it could well have been prevented years ago, right here in Ukiah. ...
"We thank you again, Les, from the bottom of our hearts. You are a fine example of what true journalism is all about!"