Regret was the general reaction by the news media community Tuesday to the decision by two leading newspapers to publish the Unabomber’s manifesto, with some deploring it as caving in to blackmail, others reluctantly justifying it as a move that may save lives.
Most expressed concern that the decision by The Washington Post to publish the tract, with The New York Times sharing the costs, could set precedents endangering journalistic independence in future cases. It could increase demands by hostage-takers and serial killers for access to the news media, they said, and risks establishing too close a link between the government and its supposed watchdog.
“It is absolutely the wrong thing to do,” said William Buzenberg, vice president of news and information for National Public Radio. “At the end of the day, the independence of the press and the public interest is probably served better by not letting a terrorist dictate what runs in a newspaper or is on the air,” he said.
“I think it is disgraceful,” said William Serrin, chairman of the journalism and mass media department at New York University. “Their news columns have been hijacked by a murderer, by a madman,” said Serrin, a former New York Times reporter. And publishing it in response to a request by the Justice Department only reinforces the perception that the relationship between the press and government is too cozy, he said.
“The FBI gets billions of dollars; let the FBI capture this person. They need a newspaper to help them?” he asked.
However, Ed Turner, executive vice president of CNN, said he would have done the same thing if faced with a serious threat that could endanger lives. “I realize that it could lead to more of this, that it plants the idea with another lunatic,” he said.
Turner was not troubled by the series of meetings between top executives of the newspapers and Justice Department officials. “You have to go to where the expertise is and it’s with the law enforcement agencies.”
The decision by the newspapers can only be understood in the context of growing public resentment of the news media’s arrogance and aloofness, said Daniel Schorr, a senior news analyst for National Public Radio and a former CBS reporter. While Schorr said he was stunned by the decision to publish, he wouldn’t criticize the newspapers for moving away from the principle that “no one dictates what you publish” to the position that you must be a responsible member of the community.
“The key to understanding this decision is that the media have come into increasing disrepute with the public,” he said. “If the media are ever going to reclaim any standing in the public’s eyes, then they can no longer take the position that we can act as irresponsibly as we want as long as we can make a buck.”