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Times, Post Wrong to Print Manifesto

Column by Daniel C. Stevenson
Editor in Chief

The New York Times and the Washington Post are known for making journalism history, be it for the Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers or the Post's series on Watergate. But with the publication last week of the Unabomber manifesto by the Post, with the support of the Times, they made history in a different way for succumbing to an imagined fear and granting the same privileges to a deranged terrorist as to a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist.

The Post published the entire 35,000-word manuscript ostensibly written by the serial mail bomber, who promised to end his attacks on scientists and industrialists if either paper printed the piece and three shorter follow-up essays. The disjointed and poorly-written piece calls for worldwide revolution against modern society.

Printing the Unabomber's manifesto, put simply, was a sell-out to terrorism. It made the papers look stupid and weak, undermined the credibility of anti-terrorism policies, and will not really save any lives. It opens the door for other violence-bent individuals or groups to demand similar consideration for their wacko agendas.

The papers seriously underestimated public interest in the Unabomber. Far from catching the public's eye, the mad bomber barely satisfied the requirements for sensational headlines, complete with the government-issue sketch of a mysterious hooded figure. The only publisher who publicly offered to print the manifesto was BobGuccione, of Penthouse magazine, hardly a representative of general public opinion.

By printing the manifesto, the Times and the Post were ostensibly trying to avert further attacks and save the lives of any future victims. What I don't understand is why the papers went to all this effort to save the lives of at most a few people at most, when they could have devoted the space for far better and more coherent purposes, such as free advertising for United Way or the Red Cross (both of which save many more lives than the Unabomber's attacks will ever claim).

Printing the piece casts doubt on the entire policy of not negotiating with - and not giving into the demands of - terrorists. When the next group of terrorists hijacks an airplane and demands millions of dollars in ransom, what are international governments going to say?"We don't negotiate with terrorists unless they write us a really big letter." Wasting space for the rantings of an anarchist isn't going to save very many lives, and could likely cost more lives as a result of an emboldened terrorist agenda.

If neither paper is concerned about journalistic integrity or public safety, they should at least be concerned about their image. I have no delusions that the Unabomber is going to stop his attacks now that he has two of the most powerful newspapers in the world eating out of his hand. In his threat earlier this year, the bomber demanded not only the publication of the manifesto, but also the printing of follow-up pieces. Why should he stop at three?Why not once a month, or once a week?

Even if the papers refuse to give in to further Unabomber demands, they look foolish for printing his words in the first place. But if they continue to provide space for his anti-technology babble beyond the first installation, they look doubly silly for devoting space to a madman.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, defended printing the manifesto:"You print it and he doesn't kill anyone else; that's a pretty good deal. You print it and he continues to kill people, what have you lost?The cost of newsprint?" Sulzberger is wrong:Even without further loss of life, printing the manifesto has already damaged the credibility of both papers and shown that terrorists can bully their way even onto the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. And when the Unabomber strikes his next victim and demands further media exposure, it will only prove that giving even one column inch to the bomber was a mistake.