August 8, 1995 in City

Papers Should Print Bomber’s Diatribe

John Leo Universal Press Syndic

The Unabomber has a 35,000-word diatribe he wants to get published. The New York Times and the Washington Post have a journalistic principle they want to defend - nobody tells them what to print.

But if they refuse to print the diatribe, the Unabomber promises to keep on killing people. What on earth shall they do?

Oh, stop all the agonizing and just print it.

This is truly a no-brainer. Which is a worse outcome: People keep getting blown up by mail bombs or the Times and Post have to run a boring op-ed article that’s much longer than usual?

Let’s go over that again: If the newspapers say no, real people die. If they say yes, the only victims are the additional Canadian trees that will have to be put to sleep so the Times and Post can publish the bomber’s ranting.

Some would say that the publication of long and unreadable articles has been done before at both papers, even without a life at stake. So, why not now? The newspapers can perform the socially useful chore of stringing the bomber along for a while, giving the FBI more time to draw a bead on him.

Besides, both newspapers ran substantial sections from the Unabomber’s screed last Wednesday. If it is OK to run 3,000 words, why is it dangerous and ethically wrong, as some commentators say, to run the whole thing? Virtually the whole journalistic Establishment seems to be opposed to publishing the full text, although nobody complained about excerpts. Doesn’t this mean that the real objection is based on the length of the text, not on principle?

We are told that giving in to the bomber will compromise the press and glorify a man who has killed three people and wounded 23 others. “Cover the news, yes; publish at gunpoint, no,” wrote Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan. He wonders: “How many other weak-minded individuals will thrill to the attention this outlaw hogs and try to replicate his outrages?”

Yes, that’s a concern, but this case is unfolding much like a kidnapping: “Meet my demands or the victim will die.” Under these conditions, the rational act usually is to meet the demands, avoid the murder and try to capture the criminal after the threat of death has passed.

A lot of people seem to think that giving all that space to the bomber will set a precedent. Won’t all kidnappers, bombers and hijackers demand their seven pages, too? Well, no. Literary terrorists aren’t very common; killers who tap out 35,000-word manifestoes and force them on leading newspapers are even rarer.

Most publicity-prone offenders just want to babble on television. Or they demand the right to surrender on camera to Peter Profile of Channel 64 Eyewitness News. Most of the time, they seem to get their way, and the republic doesn’t fall. Even David Koresh got his 58 minutes on CNN.

In fact, the Times and Post both caved in once before without setting a worrisome precedent. Both published messages by Croatian hijackers in 1976. The hijacking ended peacefully, and nobody mimicked the Croats’ tactic for two decades.

All of this could be academic soon. By printing large gobs of the Unabomber’s text, the Times and Post have shown the nation how the bomber argues and writes. This obviously increases his chances of being identified. A prose style isn’t exactly like a fingerprint, but it usually is quite distinctive.

The bomber knows a lot about the history of science and may have hung around various universities for years. He has written a letter to Scientific American magazine. How many technology-hating campus intellectuals write with such clarity, contempt for both liberals and conservatives, a fondness for breaking out into CAPITAL LETTERS and a mix of highfalutin and lowfalutin phrases? By putting this crucial identifying data on the table, the Times and Post have performed a service.

Now, all they have to do is print the rest of it. They can manage this by convincing themselves that the full text is newsworthy, just like the excerpts.

The good part is that the tedious fullness of the Unabomber’s argument virtually guarantees that nobody will read it. A 35,000-word text is seven pages in a full-sized newspaper. Some magazine readers tolerate long articles, but the glaze starts to harden around the eyeballs of the average newspaper reader at about 1,500 words. At 3,500 words, readers’ heads will begin falling into the soup all over New York and Washington. Each newspaper may have to find an insomniac just to copy-read the text.

The Times has characterized the Unabomber’s manuscript as “closely reasoned,” which means - in plain English - both “boring beyond belief” and “we’re probably going to print it.” And they should. If they refuse and another person dies, the victim’s family and community will start shouting that the Times has blood on its hands. Outraged editors who now say you can’t give in to extortion will begin switching sides and bemoaning a needless death. People will wonder why the Times let someone die because of pride and fear of precedent.

And the people who wonder will be right.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Leo Universal Press Syndicate

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