Albion Monitor /Commentary

[Editor's note: The Unabomber manifesto is available at several web sites on the Internet, and we originally planned to offer links to those locations. After long consideration, we decided that providing such a connection serves as a form of publication, and that the Albion Monitor could not ethically publicize these sites.]

Unabomb Decision Splits Journalists

by Steve Geimann

The decision was reasonable under the circumstances

U.S. journalists vigorously debated the decision to publish the unaltered manifesto of the Unabomber on September 19, with nearly all news executives agreeing the decision was difficult but disagreeing on damage to the profession.

Some critics said The Washington Post and The New York Times abdicated their journalism responsibility by giving in to a terrorist and had subjected news organizations to the danger of future demands by other terrorists.

But several journalists and terrorism experts couldn't agree on whether the papers could morally refuse to do whatever they felt they had to do to try to put an end to the 17-year series of 16 bombing attacks, which killed three people and injured 23 others.

"It was the wrong decision,'' said Jack Levin, an expert on serial killing at Northeastern University in Boston. "It is shortsighted. ... The problem is, it rewards a terrorist and it inspires dozens of wannabe serial killers.''

William Woo, editor of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said the decision was reasonable under the circumstances and that the situation was so unusual that it would not set any pattern. "We make judgments day by day based on the circumstances day by day."

Ben Bradlee, former Post executive editor, dismissed copy-cat concerns, noting that the last time newspapers were forced to carry a terrorist statement came in the Croatian hijacking in 1976. He also rejected arguments that the press should be independent of law enforcement.

"To be independent just for the sake of being independent doesn't make sense anymore," Bradlee said on "NBC Nightly News" on the day the manifesto was published.

The Post and New York Times "lost their honor" by acceding to the bomber's demands

Some journalists blamed law-enforcement officials, not The Post or The Times, for recommending the paper publish the manifesto, leaving the publishers to feel responsible if there was a new round of bombings. "The government put the publishers in an impossible position, and whatever decision was taken, it would have been the wrong one to someone,'' said Joan Konner, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

L. Paul Brewer, former terrorism expert in the State Department, said he was sickened by the newspaper's decision to publish, but was outraged that government officials made the recommendation. "Government should be standing firm against terrorism," he said.

Max Frankel, former Times executive editor, said the newspapers took a gamble that publishing the manifesto would end the bombing spree and human injury. "That's the bet," he said on "Nightline." If the bombing resumes, "we've lost $40,000 and we've lost our honor."

Some feel that honor has already been compromised. New York University journalism chairman William Serrin denounced publication of the Unabomber manifesto last week, saying in a Washington Post commentary that the Post and New York Times "lost their honor" by acceding to the bomber's demands.

But NPR News commentator Daniel Schorr said he sided with the publishers in their "wrenchingly difficult decision" and said it was journalism with a human face.

In the commentary, Serrin said newspapers have a public service obligation, but "public service means publishing stories that inform, that educate, that expose. It does not mean becoming partners with government. It does not mean allowing one's newspapers to be hijacked."

Schorr saw a parallel with "civic" or "public" journalism, which he said is "journalism with absolute independence, tempered by concern for consequences to people. In the case of the Unabomber essay, The Post and Times consulted the Justice Department and the FBI for guidance, not for dictation. Then they held their noses and made their decision -- like members of a community."

Serrin disagreed: "If this decision is representative of civic journalism, it ought to tell us how wrong civic journalism is."

A 'damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't' situation

Reginald Stuart, president of Society of Professional Journalists, said the newspapers should have allowed law enforcement to do its job rather than publish. "I have a lot of respect for Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Graham and know how difficult a decision like this must have been for them. I respect their decision and am sure it was based on more information than observers like myself have been privy too.

"However, reasonable people can disagree and I continue to feel this manuscript should not have been published under the circumstances that it was. "I have always said this is a 'damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't' situation. Given the fact that we are dealing with a terrorist, whose motives beyond murder and intimidation are not clear, we should have erred on the damned-if-you-don't side of judgment and relied on our law enforcement authorities to do their job.

"As much as the Unabomber may have wanted this publicity and the government felt providing it would help bring this nightmare to an end, I feel we have only fed the ego of an irrational person who has no respect for human life. I hope I am wrong on that point. On the larger point of publishing the manifestoes by terrorists, I hope we never do this again, the welfare of the public requiring it."

Oakland Tribune publishes manifesto, sees circulation rise

Reader demands for copies of The Washington Post supplement with the Unabomb manifesto coincided with Oakland Tribune's decision to publish the same 35,000-word statement two days later and boost circulation by about 10,000 copies.

"This is a local story -- the Unabomber may live and work in this area, and much of the investigation is in the East Bay," said Editor-in- Chief David Burgin.

Several Unabomber letters and bombs were mailed from Oakland, and bombs have exploded in neighboring Berkeley, Burgin noted.

Ironically, the Tribune got the Unabomber's condemnation of technology from the Internet, Burgin said, emphasizing the Tribune has had no contacts from the Unabomber or law enforcement officials asking for publication.

This report was compiled from Press Notes originally appearing in the Society for Professional Journalists mailing list, SPJ-L.

Albion Monitor October 9, 1995 (

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