JOURNALISTS, by and large, behave badly. The press horde that descended on Georgetown, Guyana, in the week of Nov. 19 was no exception to that axiom. Furthermore, bad behavior tends to become execrable when air-ports are jammed, hotel rooms are scarce, and phone service is just marginal to the normal needs of a place. Georgetown, with its fragile, gingerbread charm, conformed to all these requirements.
The small delegation that had arrived with Rep. Leo J. Ryan the previous week seemed already to have strained the city's public accommodations. But when the locust invasion of world press arrived, things turned to bedlam. They came wheeling out of the sky, poised as always to feed on catastrophe, with their babble of different tongues and surprisingly uniform lines of equipment: Japanese cameras and tape recorders, German or Italian portable typewriters, and ecumenical rudeness in all languages.
Item: Two German reporters storming out of the local police station declaiming against the "inefficiency" of the imperturbable Guyanese bureaucracy.
Item: The New York Times correspondent proclaiming the influence of his newspaper while demanding an immediate call to New York of an overworked switchboard operator in the Tower Hotel. "Maybe I will, maybe I won't," she muttered after he left.
Item: Television correspondents jumping into a cab with camera and sound men to interview another reporter on his way to the airport.
Item: One veteran Washington newspaper correspondent giving an avuncular warning to a younger colleague about the prostitutes sashaying through a hotel lobby: "Watch it, man. In this town you can get a bad case of clap by just p -- ing into the wind."
From the United States mainland the only air connections with Guyana were through New York and Miami, routing through Port-of-Spain and other Caribbean capitals with long layovers and transfers. The arrival point was Timehri International Airport, 26 miles from Georgetown. So the task of booking flights to Georgetown from the United States was formidable; from any other part of the globe it was even more so. Inevitably, the three free-spending American television networks and affluent newspapers chartered their own sleek Lear jets. By the time most of world-class journalism arrived in Georgetown, its mood was foul.
The slow-moving ambience of Guyana was bound to make things worse. Novelist V. S. Naipaul caught the spirit of lethargy in an admirable essay on what was then British Guiana.
"Georgetown," he wrote, "most exquisite city in the British Caribbean, is for the visitor the most exasperating. Try getting a cup of coffee in the morning. The thing is impossible. Yesterday you expressed a dislike for lukewarm 'instant' coffee, particularly when the coffee is placed on the water and not the water on the coffee; so this morning your hotel offers you a half a teaspoonful of last year's coffee grounds in a pint of lukewarm water, since in your folly you said that you 'used' ground coffee -- 'use,' revealingly, being the Guianese word for 'drink' or 'eat'.
"... When you came down this morning at a quarter past 7 and inquired why you had not been awakened at half past 6, as you had asked, the middle-aged waiter, with a look of terror, said it wasn't half past 6 as yet...."
INTO THIS world, which had changed little since Naipaul wrote in 1962, came the legions of the press in their Lear jets, with their Nikon cameras and Sony recorders.
Despite its having won independence from British rule, the capital retained all the trappings of British colonial bureaucracy under a benign socialist administration headed by Forbes Burnham, who prefers to be addressed as "comrade." Its population of 780,000 is roughly half East Indian, 40 percent black with a remaining mix of Chinese, indigenous Amerindians, and "white" Guyanese of British descent who stayed after independence in 1966.
One of the first moves of the American news media upon establishing camp in Guyana was to commandeer most of the functioning cabs on a full-time basis, making it necessary for others in the press to share the precarious, winding ride from the airport to town with the local populace on decrepit buses.
The world media descended on six hotels ranging from the correct, stiff-upper-lip British style of the Pegasus along Georgetown's silt-filled oceanfront to mattresses on the floors of squalid flophouses. For the press, the most favored hotel was the Tower, which compensated for its peeling paint and falling plaster with a competent cuisine of English, French and Indian dishes served by Indian waiters brimming over with political and journalistic gossip -- but little sound information.
Within the first 24 hours of the great press descent, several reporters had encountered a quaint welcome on the streets of the city. These are described as "choke-and-rob," in which the new visitor has his arm grabbed suddenly from behind or his windpipe given a sharp blow while be is separated from his watch or wallet. Eventually the Guyancese government issued warnings to the press as part of its formal indoctrination to the country. Reporters found themselves taking cabs for half a block between their hotels and their destinations to avoid these costly encounters. One FBI agent, accosted by a choke-and-robber, shot him on the spot, not fatally.
To book a phone call either to Washington or to Guyana in the Tower (which, needless to say, was devoid of a tower), it was necessary to go downstairs to the switchboard, which was manned uniformly by a single operator. It took 10 to 30 minutes for calls to get through - and sometimes a comparable number of dollars as inducements.
EVELYN WAUGH described the information-gathering process in Guyana with eerie accuracy some four decades ago in "Scoop," his satirical novel about the British and American press behavior in a mythical African republic. However awful was the reality in the jungle 140 miles to the northwest, the 100-odd journalists confined to Georgetown found themselves in a stew of wild rumor, professional anxiety and frantic urgings from their home offices to race to the catastrophe. Some reporters were awakened in their hotel rooms in the middle of the night by Australian or New Zoaland voices asking for five-minute "beeper" radio interviews. Others were apprised by their editors of the prospects for "instant" books on the massacre, such as the one from which this is excerpted, promising substantial advances.
One of the central points of information in Georgetown was the office of Guyanese Minister of Information Shirley Field-Ridley, a bright and attractive black woman who shuttled constantly between cabinet meetings and press briefings. The Ministry of Information was housed, like most government agencies, in a ramshackle, yellowing structure. The slow-whirling ceiling fans recirculated hot air masses over the chipped and battered furniture, along the peeling walls and over the lethargic bureaucracy waiting to add yet another journalist's name to yet another list.
Naipaul wrote: "The malarial sluggishness of the Guianese is known throughout the Caribbean and is recognized even in British Guiana. I was told that it is dangerous to leave a Guianese in charge of a surveying station in the bush: The surveyor will return to find the hut collapsed, instruments rusted, and the Guianese mad."
Hardly more helpful was the American Embassy, presided over by John Burke, a 53-year-old professional foreign service officer with a taste for Bach and Schubert, with a reputation for unflappability that some suggest may stem from inability to perceive a serious oncoming crisis. His information deputy was Stepney Kibble, a black U.S. career officer for whom Guyana was to be the crowning assignment in a 30-year carrer. He planned to retire to a plot that he had providentially purchased years earlier in New Mexico. Dutiful as Kibble was in his role as embassy spokesman, he came under attack from certain quarters in the press on varying grounds, chief among them timidity and incompetence.
Kibble would say nothing that had not been cleared by the Embassy. Relentlessly, he would refer newsmen to other sources -- Minister of Information Field-Ridley or the American military task force spokesman, Air Force Capt. John J. Moscatelli, a stiff, dark-haired and olive-skinned man with a preference for dark-rimmed glasses and a deep aversion to smiling. Moscatelli would bark out to reporters the numbing catalogue of updated body counts, body bags, bodies flown to Timehri, bodies transferred to aluminum cases, bodies flown to Dover, Del.
From television, movies and romanticized fiction, popular myths have arisen about journalists in trench coats and bush jackets roaming the world as eyewitnesses to history. The Jonestown story, however, demonstrated again the farcical and second-hand nature of what often passes for "news gathering."
Unable to reach the Jonestown settlement or even Port Kaituma 150 miles away, the news locusts in Georgetown resorted to the time-honored practice of interviewing one another, collecting stale stories and embellishing bureaucratic utterances in such a way as to convey the impression that "I am there." One reporter, fortunate enough to fly briefly over the Jones settlement in the jungle, filed a story with the dateline, "Jonestown, Guyana." A major newspaper filed its pages for days with detailed stories on the massacre in Jonestown, though its reporters were stranded in Georgetown where they had to rely on second-hand descriptions of the carnage.
And so, for the stranded correspondent in Georgetown the imperative in life was getting to Jonestown. On Monday, Nov. 20, Information Minister Field-Ridley announced at her only press conference that a pool of three newspersons could accompany Guyanese authorities by air to Jonestown.
The Washington Post's Charles Krause was sitting in the front row of reporters and Leonard Downie Jr., another Post reporter who had just arrived from Washington, was sitting a few seats away, unrecognized. In the clamor of voices demanding the coveted seats, Downie's voice rose above the others. "Why don't you let Krause go? He deserves it!"
Still not recognizing Downie's affiliation, Krause's colleagues quickly agreed with him in an uncharacteristic burst of generosity, given the keenness of the competition. Through quirks of chance and cunning, the photographer who won the pool seat on the airplane was Frank Johnston, also of The Washington Post. When Field-Ridley noticed the common affiliation of Krause and Johnson, she looked up with a smile. Should there be two people from the same organization, she asked.
Krause was going because he had been a special case, Downie quickly explained, and Johnston had been nominated by their peers. "Besides, they are already on their way to the airport," Downie added.
The Post's Downie then turned to his colleagues and promised them a full pool report. CAPTION: Picture, Greg Robinson, left, San Francisco Examiner photographer, takes picture of NBC cameraman Bob Brown, right, and film technician Steve Sung in Georgetown. Robinson and Brown were killed later in shooting at airport, Sung seriously wounded. Copyright (c) 1978, The San Francisco Chronicle