Unabomber News History

Copyright 1995 The Times Mirror Company

Los Angeles Times

April 27, 1995, Thursday, Home Edition

SECTION: Part A; Page 3; Metro Desk

LENGTH: 1510 words




In his letter requesting a national audience for his rambling anarchist views, the terrorist known as the Unabomber gave new meaning to the term "publish or perish" and thrust the media again into the quandary that has plagued it since the dawn of modern terrorism:

Do you accede to the demands of the lawless to prevent future bloodshed? If you do, will it really prevent the loss of life? If you don't, are you responsible for subsequent violent acts? Does granting terrorists a forum for their views make the media an accomplice?

"So we offer a bargain," the Unabomber wrote to the New York Times in a letter published Wednesday. "We have a long article, between 29,000 and 37,000 words that we want to have published. If you can get it published according to our requirements, we will permanently desist from terrorist activities."

It is a tantalizing offer. The Unabomber -- the alleged mastermind of the longest string of bombings in American history -- is suspected of 16 bombings in 17 years, killing three of his individually targeted victims and maiming many. Law enforcement officials say the bomber may be unraveling psychologically and becoming more of a threat.

Editors and ethics experts said Wednesday that the Unabomber has created a dilemma for media outlets caught between the duties of journalists and the responsibilities of citizens. In offering his deal, the Unabomber said his manuscript "must be published in the New York Times, Time or Newsweek, or some other widely read, nationally distributed periodical."

Louis Hodges, a senior professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, contends that a newspaper or broadcast outlet should not make bargains "with someone of this mentality -- particularly not knowing who he is. . . . The Times should tell him to go stuff it."

Yet Hodges acknowledged that rejecting the Unabomber would carry its own risks -- not only for his potential victims, but also for the entire journalism industry. "People would say the New York Times had an opportunity to put a stop to this" terrorism, Hodges said.

The decision to print or broadcast a terrorist's demands is easiest to make when the threat of violence is most immediate, when a terrorist points a gun at a hostage and vows to pull the trigger unless he gets a national pulpit.

"Journalists are human beings, and, if a life is at stake, most of us will say, 'I'll compromise my truth-telling or my independence' " to prevent bloodshed, said Jay Black, editor of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics.

But because this bomber's threat is so nebulous -- he may perhaps attack an unknown victim at an unknown time -- and the media doesn't want to become the story, Black says the New York Times and other outlets face a tough choice.

Complying with the bomber's wishes could set "an extremely bad precedent by alerting every other sicko or manipulator that news columns are for sale," Black said. "This is journalism being held hostage -- it's an extremely unpalatable situation."

The New York Times' intentions and its decision-making process were the subject of speculation in newsrooms and living rooms around the country.

Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in the paper Wednesday that his paper would look carefully at the unfinished book-length manuscript and make a "journalistic decision" about whether to publish it.

"While the pages of The Times can't be held hostage by those who threaten violence, we're ready to receive the manuscript described in the letter," Sulzberger said.

"But whether we publish it ourselves or not, we'll do all we responsibly can to make it public."

A spokeswoman at Newsweek declined to comment on the magazine's policy, saying only, "We're obviously going to act responsibly, both as journalists and as citizens."

Abraham D. Sofaer, a Hoover Institution fellow at Stanford and former legal adviser to the State Department, said he does not believe that printing at least a summary and a chunk of the self-proclaimed anarchist's manifesto would be giving in to an unreasonable demand.

"Why should you not print it?" he asked. "I just don't see what you would achieve in doing that. He'd still be free to kill again (whether you printed it or not). The reason you'd print it ultimately is because it's news." Sofaer was affiliated with the State Department in 1985 when a group of Lebanese Muslims hijacked a TWA jet and later paraded its hostages for the broadcast media at a press conference in Damascus -- a riotous event that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called a "humiliation" for America.

Terrorists have a long history of threatening harm if the media does not publicize their views, in effect holding newspapers, television and radio stations responsible for their own criminal acts.

When newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst was kidnaped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in the early 1970s, her captors demanded that all of their communications be printed in full in media outlets. "Failure to do so," the group warned, "will endanger the safety of the prisoner."

In 1976, a group of Croatian nationals hijacked a New York-to-Chicago jet and demanded that five major newspapers publish their manifestoes beginning on page one or the terrorists would plant a bomb in a "highly busy location."

The group had already detonated one bomb, killing a police officer in a New York subway station.

The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune complied as best they could by publishing the statements; but it was late on a Friday night and all of the publications had begun printing. The International Herald Tribune could not comply because its Saturday edition had already been delivered.

More recently, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh promised that he and his followers would surrender from their armed compound in Waco, Tex., if an hourlong tape was played on radio stations. But after the tape was aired he recanted, weeks before the inferno and loss of life that ended the siege.

The issue is no clearer today. There is no consensus about what to do with the Unabomber's demands.

Shelby Coffey III, editor of the Los Angeles Times, defended the New York Times' decision to take a look at the bomber's manifesto and then make a decision.

"But I would be skeptical," Coffey said, "because you're talking about making a bargain. When you're making a bargain, you have to know something about the person you're making a bargain with. What we know about this guy's background and credibility is that he has apparently perpetrated a string of bombings that have killed or maimed people. That's not the best background to be making bargains with."

Several journalists agreed that the bomber's demand letter, published in many papers' Wednesday editions, was itself newsworthy. And they supported the New York Times' decision to print it.

But they categorically renounced the bomber's proposed bargain: a forum for his manuscript in exchange for a pledge to quit killing people. Newspapers, they said, simply cannot swap column inches for a terrorist's promises.

"No deals with the FBI or the writer of the letter," said George Langford, public editor of the Chicago Tribune. "You're not going to accede to their demands. No way."

At the Sacramento Bee, which published the bomber's letter to the New York Times on Wednesday, ombudsman Art Nauman said he personally abhorred the thought of turning the newspaper into a forum for a crazed terrorist.

"I'd tell him, 'The first letter was bona fide (as a news story), because it told us a lot about you,' " he said. "But we're not going to be part of your propaganda machine. We have law enforcement to take care of people like you."

Mark Jurkowitz, media writer for the Boston Globe, noted that the letter published Wednesday gave insight into the motives and character of a notorious criminal whose public profile has been nothing more than a police sketch since he first struck in 1978.

But by welcoming the manuscript, he said, the New York Times "could find themselves in a very tricky position, a pawn in the cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and this guy, a situation where they might be manipulated by both parties."

Criminal experts were divided over whether it was good judgment to publish the letter and whether the Unabomber's longer manifesto should be printed.

Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist in San Diego, noted that publishing the letter "gives reality to the bomber's fantasy that he is larger than life, or more important than he actually is. That's not necessarily a good idea."

But others suggested that publishing the letter might have defused the Unabomber's tensions or satisfied his desire to win recognition. "I think it could be quite helpful," said Charles Bahn, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "And I think we should encourage him to write again and make his ideas plainer and plainer."

Times staff writer Jenifer Warren in Sacramento contributed to this story.