Ethics of Publishing Terrorist Tracts
Some hail the papers' 'hard choice,' others see betrayal
NEW YORK — THE decision of the Washington Post to publish the Unabomber's manifesto with the help of the New York Times is being hailed as a humanitarian gesture and derided as betrayal of journalistic ethics.
It is touching off a fierce debate within the news media and law-enforcement communities about the responsibilities of newspapers and the best way to deal with terrorists.
To some, publishing the 35,000-word tract may end up saving lives. But others believe it will only encourage other terrorists to make similar demands in the future.
Clearly, the decision was a difficult one for the papers. In a rare joint statement, the publishers of the Times and Post called it the "right choice between bad options."
"It doesn't have to do an awful lot with journalistic ethics; it has an awful lot to do with humanity," says Peter Herford, a professor of journalism at Columbia University in New York.
The Unabomber has killed three people and injured almost 30 in a 17-year bombing spree that has left law-enforcement officials baffled. Last June, he suddenly changed his tactics. In letters sent to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Penthouse Magazine, the serial killer threatened to kill again if his manifesto was not published by one of the two papers within three months.
That deadline was to expire Sept. 24.
"Both the Post and the Times felt there was no journalistic reason to publish it, but clearly there was a public-safety issue raised and we both felt before we could make a decision we should talk to the people who are responsible public officials and ask their opinion," says Donald Graham, publisher of the Post.
At the urging of Attorney General Janet Reno, the two papers decided to print the manifesto as an eight-page insert. It appeared in the Sept. 19 edition of the Post only. The Times doesn't have the mechanical ability to distribute such a section in all copies of its daily papers. The Times helped pay for the section.
"We were concerned both about our two newspapers, but more about TV and other media that might be threatened with something like this," says a source at the Post, who requested anonymity. "We asked the FBI to weigh the pluses and minuses, and their conclusion was pretty unequivocal."
But many people in the journalism community believe it was the wrong move.
"Consulting with the FBI and the Justice department also led to the Waco and the Ruby Ridge incidents," says Christopher Harper, a media and terrorism expert and professor of journalism at New York University, who called it an "outrageous decision." "The Unabomber is a terrorist's and the New York Times and the Washington Post have acceded to terrorist demands. It sets a dangerous precedent for any future case."
Mr. Harper and others argue the Unabomber is not a rational individual, and thus there is no guarantee that he will stop killing.
"Everyone says they hope he'll keep his word, but we shouldn't be trusting the word of a murderer," says James Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "In fact this may even whet his appetite ... when he realizes how wonderful it is to be published in a prestigious paper."
Others agree. "This guy will kill again," says Jack Levin, an expert in serial killers at Northeastern. "This guy is an avenger. He craves attention. If he doesn't kill, he loses the public's eye."
Still, some argue the Unabomber's case is unique and that publishing the manifesto will help lead to his capture.
"Under normal circumstances caving in to a terrorist like this is not a good idea," says John Sheehan, executive director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a media think tank in Washington. "But under these circumstances, and with the number of bombings and people he's already killed, it's a different case. In publishing the first excerpts [on Aug. 2nd], they were able to glean some clues. This is a good idea because it may close the loop on this man."
The FBI, for its part, isn't certain whether the move by the papers will stop the Unabomber from acting again. "This has been going on for 17 years, and until we get this guy and are in a position to ask all the questions, there is no way to predict what he may do," says Bob Long, an FBI spokesman.
There is some precedent for these kinds of actions. In 1976, a group of Croatian nationalists took a TWA flight hostage and threatened to kill all of the passengers if five prominent papers, including the Times and Post, did not publish their manifesto. The papers complied, the hostages were set free, and the Croatians surrendered.
* Staff writers Ann Tyson in Chicago and Ron Scherer in New York contributed to this report.