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3 Lessons the Jonestown Tragedy Can Teach Us About Congressional Oversight

by Josh Resnik, Chief Content Officer and SVP/Publisher, FiscalNote

Today, on the anniversary of that tragic event, we at FiscalNote and CQ Roll Call are launching a new podcast series, Oversight, that takes a fresh look at Congress’s past investigations into our nation’s most notorious crimes, tragedies, and scandals.

On November 18, 1978, 917 Americans were murdered or committed suicide at the hand of the Rev. Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana, in South America.  Among the dead was US Representative Leo Ryan, who was investigating Jones and attempting to bring members of Jones’s cult to safety. Unfortunately, Ryan’s quest failed and instead culminated in the single largest killing of American civilians until 9/11.  

Today, on the anniversary of that tragic event, we at FiscalNote and CQ Roll Call are launching a new podcast series, Oversight, that takes a fresh look at Congress’s past investigations into our nation’s most notorious crimes, tragedies and scandals.  Season 1 is an examination of Jonestown, including new and shocking facts.

The story of Jonestown is compelling and complex.  Many know about the tragic loss of life on that fateful day, but few know the chain of events that led to it.  There were numerous missed opportunities to stop Jones. Jones leveraged a powerful political machine in northern California (where he was based before fleeing to South America) for protection. He recruited followers as he preached racial integration against an America filled with racism and prejudice, resulting in a congregation that was 70% African American. There was international intrigue involving the Soviet Union and the KGB.  And these examples just scratch the surface.

It’s as shocking a true crime story as any in history.  But why revisit it?

Congressional oversight is, of course, top of mind in light of current events.  How the government polices itself, the role of whistleblowers, and how to get at the truth are fundamental questions confronting us daily.  And the oversight role is where wrongdoing is typically brought to light.

What can the Jonestown tragedy teach us about oversight?  Here are 3 key lessons: 

1. Those in power tend to protect their own

The Democratic political machine was in full swing in northern California in the 1970s.  Jim Jones was a vote getter who used his sway with his followers to drive turnout for rallies and elections, and who helped to get many of the leading politicians into power, including legendary San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.  Jones then leveraged his political influence in more surprising and sinister ways that we detail in our podcast. He essentially circumvented any attempt to bring him to justice for some time.

We know with certainty, from many examples throughout history, that power unchecked is power abused.  Jonestown is an example of what happens when politicians are willing to look the other way.

2. Substantive, nonpartisan journalism matters

Though ultimately unsuccessful, the few efforts to bring Jones down and save his followers involved attempts to bring facts to light through the media.  For example, in the podcast you’ll hear about the efforts of a San Francisco area publication -- backed by none other than Rupert Murdoch -- to expose Jim Jones despite tremendous pressure.  

Today, we’re overwhelmed by the volume of content we have access to through social media, the 24/7 video news cycle, and more.  Quality, though, is harder to find. And the platforms that disseminate all that content often have their own incentives that drive them either to encourage the flow of misinformation, or at least to refrain from stemming the tide. 

People crave and need informed, unbiased content.  Our society depends on it. There’s also an important place for fact-based, partisan opinions, as an informed debate of issues makes for a stronger democracy.  But an uninformed -- or, worse, misinformed -- democracy is a dangerous place.

In the case of Jonestown, unfortunately the efforts to expose Jones weren’t enough.  Transparency can’t always guarantee the right result. But facts have to see the light of day for there to be any chance.

3. Wrongdoing thrives in the absence of effective government oversight

Between the protection of the political machine, disregarded whistleblowers, a failure by the State Department to properly oversee Jones’s commune in Guyana, and more, Jones effectively was left unchecked.  And that gave him room to thrive.

The setting may have changed, but we continue to confront important questions about government oversight today.  How much credence should be given to whistleblowers? How do politics influence our government’s prosecutorial apparatus?  How should government officials react when they see indications of possible wrongdoing?

The Jonestown tragedy represented the culmination of many missed opportunities to stop Jones.  It’s what happens when oversight is absent or ineffective.

If you’re at all interested in these issues, or if you’re intrigued to learn more about the Jonestown story itself, be sure to check out our Oversight podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts.

What are your concerns about government oversight today?  What other relevant lessons do you think we can learn today from the scandals and tragedies of the past?