Unabomber Poses Quandry for Journalists and Gumshoes Newspapers Weigh Whether to Publish Manifesto

By Alexandra Marks, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 31, 1995 | Go to article overview

Unabomber Poses Quandry for Journalists and Gumshoes Newspapers Weigh Whether to Publish Manifesto


Alexandra Marks, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


IT is a moral conundrum worthy of Shakespeare: publish or someone might perish. That, in theory at least, is the dilemma facing two prominent American newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, as they grapple with whether to print the 35,000-word Unabomber manifesto. If they do, the elusive terrorist, whom authorities suspect of killing three people with letter bombs since 1978, says he won't strike again. He has set the end of September as a deadline. Though it is a quandary confronting the two papers, it is also quietly stirring an ethical debate across the entire industry. It raises fundamental questions about the role and mission of the press in a free society. Such threats can compromise a paper's independence, turn it into a pawn in a game of cat and mouse, and set a deadly precedent. At the same time, it creates the opportunity to save lives. Some argue saving lives should take precedence over lofty ideals of journalistic integrity. Others contend that any capitulation would inspire copycats and, ultimately, threaten more lives. "We view it primarily as a public safety issue, not as a journalistic decision," says Bo Jones, president and general manager of the Washington Post. "At this point, we haven't decided whether to run it or not." The Times declined to comment, deferring to a statement made by publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. on Aug. 2, when both papers ran excerpts from the manifesto, along with news stories about the FBI's decision to distribute it to dozens of college professors in hopes they would recognize a former student in the writing. The Unabomber is demanding that all 35,000 words be published. "As I've said before, the demand that the Unabomber have access to our pages for three years is especially troubling," Mr. Sulzberger's statement read, referring to the Unabomber's demand that he have access to the Times' pages for followup comments. "There's no easy way to open negotiations with this person and for the moment we're stymied." One question being raised is how much newspapers should cooperate with law enforcement authorities. Several analysts see in Sulzberger's statement an effort to draw out the Unabomber, and suggest the Times may be working with the FBI. They see such a move, if true, compromising its independence. Others see a genuine effort to start a dialogue that could preserve the paper's integrity and at the same time accommodate the Unabomber. Consulting with FBI Mr. Jones of the Post says they will consult with law enforcement before they make their decision, but it will clearly be the Post's decision. …

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