70 Years of Love-Hate: A Case Study of the Relationship Between Investigative Journalists and Religious Cults
Over the course of the last 70 years, religious cults have and continue to piqué the interest of investigative journalists and historians in the United States and throughout the rest of the world. From cults like WKFL to the Peoples Temple, journalists have attempted to try to find meaning and understand just how cults and cult leaders manage to infiltrate the minds of people. Since the 1950s, investigative journalists have significantly changed the way they write about religious cults, often shifting from reporting on these groups with a sense of acceptance to orchestrating public fear and showcasing increasingly ominous portrayals of the cults. However, in recent years, reporting done on religious cults has significantly gone down, indicating that journalists have since accepted the presence of religious counter-culture.
In the late 1950s, religious cults were on the rise. This was a time when nobody had ever heard of them and people believed that any form of counter-religion was completely harmless. One of the first American religious cults was called Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith, and Love (or WKFL). Krishna Venta, the cult’s leader, claimed he was Jesus Christ and that he was born on another planet 240,000 years ago. In contrast to what one might perceive cults as today, WKFL often volunteered their people to combat wildfires, offered shelter to people in need, and cared for the homeless (San Bernardino County Sun 1956).
Because it was uncommon to investigate cults during this time, many journalists wrote about WKFL in a positive light. One example of this is, in a picture story in Look magazine in 1959, photographer and journalist Cal Bernstein showcased various photos with the title “California’s Offbeat Religions: We Love You (Bernstein 1959),” which indicates that the cults we fear in America today seemed harmless to journalists in the 1950s. Through these documents, it is clear that the reality of the concerns of journalists then seemed to be less hyper-focused on uncovering the wrongdoings of cults and more focused on providing a place for those cults to feel safe and included. Although the cult had its share of violent history, many journalists like Bernstein remained impartial and chose to show the cult in a way that “made the group appear more theatrical than solemn — and the magazines frame did not suggest it was controversial — let alone dangerous (McCloud 2). Ultimately, the problems that cults were creating were remaining unchecked by journalists, which could very well be the reason that cults managed to flourish and get away with abuse into the 1960s and 70s.
Another common attitude of investigative journalists toward religious cults in the 1950s was that they deemed them exotic and mysterious — which indicated that they were more or less harmless. In an article by Newsweek in 1956 titled “The Way of the Cults,” the author claims that the new cults forming in California are “sects in the Los Angeles area which can best — or most conservatively — be described as odd-looking to almost anybody who does not live in southern California” (“Way of the Cults” 102). Throughout the article, Newsweek discussed just how strange and off-beat these cults were, but there is no mention of any danger or caution to be taken. The issue of cults at the time that journalists wrote about was not to take precaution or stay away, but to look in awe and study their strange qualities. These journalists would look at and study these cults from afar — which is a much different approach than what they often do today.
As cults began to change, so did journalists’ reporting and investigating. In the 1960s and 1970s, cults were becoming increasingly widespread. Many of these cults, similarly to that of WKFL, were driven by cult leaders, or as many journalists called them, “gurus.” These religious gurus often targeted white, middle-to-upper class men and women in their teens and early 20’s. One cult, in particular, was catching the eye of the public: Children of God. The cult, led by guru Moses David, preached a concept coined “free love,” which essentially preached pedophilia and sex with minors. Because of this, many parents were starting to get concerned about their children’s well-being. In 1971, William Rambur founded FREECOG or Free the Children of God, which was an anti-cult group of parents whose children were in cults. Journalists began to catch wind of this and started reporting not simply on the strangeness and exotic ways of cults but began to latch onto the sense of fear and worry felt by these parents.
Although some journalists were still in the past, such as reporter Stephen Harrigan in his article in the Texas Monthly in 1973 which bylined: “Forget those horror stories about the Children of God. They’ve gone respectable, and they love you,” most journalists were beginning to question the legitimacy and legality of cult beliefs (“Let the Love Light Shine” 1973). In a 1974 article in New Times magazine, reporter Thomas Moore interviewed several members and ex-members of the Children of God. Because the Children of God’s guru was under speculation for sexual abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, and pedophilia, Moore made it his mission to get to the bottom of the controversy.
Moore used various investigative techniques that were now more common in the 1970s when investigating cults — he held several interviews as well as went to the Children of God campsite in order to get a first-hand account of what was happening to young adults who had joined the cult. Moore also had a very different mindset than journalists before him in the 1950s. As previously mentioned, reporters often gawked at cults like WKFL from the sidelines, mocking them for being exotic and goofy. But in his article about the Children of God, Moore sensed there was something much more disturbing going on (“The Children Of God: Disciples of Deception” 1974).
Fortunately for Moore and other investigative journalists, their intuitions ended up being correct. Because of their efforts to uncover the truth, members of Children of God began to leave the cult and began speaking strongly against it. If it weren’t for journalists changing the way they report and investigate cults, the same changes wouldn’t have been made that prohibit sexual abuse, psychological abuse, pedophilia, and other unnerving illegalities committed by cult leaders. Although no laws were changed, the public’s view on religious cults was shifting. People were beginning to understand just how dangerous they could be.
One specific major cult that fundamentally changed the way religious cults were perceived in more recent history was The Peoples Temple (or Jonestown as it’s more commonly referred to). The Peoples Temple, led by self-identified “prophet” Jim Jones, was positively regarded at first, with Jones receiving the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award for his work in creating a church with a more open and equal environment. In addition, he received several endorsements from San Francisco’s mayor George Moscone. However, all of the Peoples Temple’s support was squandered on November 18, 1978, when it was found that most of the members had participated in a mass suicide (PBS.com).
Investigative journalists jumped on this opportunity. This was the first mainstream cult event that the public had its eyes on. But something changed about the way people reported cults. Many journalists began sympathizing with cult members who had lost family members and friends. Instead of criticizing members, journalists found ways to communicate in a more human and understanding way. In an article published by the New York Times on the first anniversary of the mass suicide, investigative journalist Nora Gallagher depicted a story of several Jonestown survivors who lost many of their closest friends in the mass suicide. In Gallagher’s article, she quotes a mother of five children that died in the mass suicide event: “’Even the thought of talking to you has brought it all back,” said the woman. “My husband is having flashbacks of the children. We had five. They are all dead (Gallagher 1).’” Because of Gallagher’s investigative work and techniques of interviewing cult family members, many people began to think that religious cults weren’t just made to be exotic and sexual in nature, but that the people who were in them were just as human as anyone.
The last major cult to grasp the attention of journalists was the Branch Davidians in 1993. This cult, led by David Koresh, a leader who believed he was the second coming of Jesus Christ. At their compound in Waco, Texas, it was believed that they were harboring hundreds of illegal firearms and explosives. Because of this, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives infiltrated the compound, killing hundreds of men, women, and children (History.com). This event changed the way investigative reporters view cults and journalists then shifted the blame on government authorities instead of cult members. Because of this, the public began to see religious cults like the Branch Davidians as misunderstood and blamed the U.S. government for unleashing ATF on hundreds of innocent people.
In more recent years, investigative reporting work done on religious cults has since majorly subsided. Some religions such as Mormonism and Neopaganism, which were previously believed to be cult-like by journalists, have found their way into the mainstream (McCloud 223). This is majorly due to the fact that the media portrayal of these religions has shifted due to upper-class, white members of society gradually joining these religions. Whether or not new religions will pop up in the near future will continue to be a topic of discussion for historians, researchers, and investigative journalists alike.
Through time, investigative journalists have fundamentally changed the way they investigate religious cults. In the beginning, journalists were focused on the rarity and off-beat nature of cults and only seemed to care about the spectacle of various cults. But this changed throughout time when cults were coming out from under the surface. Through interviewing cult members, visiting compounds and campsites of cults, and carefully studying cult leaders, these journalists managed to spark fear and outrage from the public. In turn, this made it so the public could have more of an open discussion about cults and their ability to lure regular people in. If it weren’t for investigative journalists, cults would still remain an exotic, untouched mystery.
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