Heavy Package in June 1995 reached the mail room The Washington Post and The New York Times, with similar content: single-spaced typed copies of a document titled “Industrial Society and Its Future”, with a note from an anonymous sender who said he would kill again when Till the newspapers did not publish the manifesto. Its entirety within 90 days.
The threat seemed credible. The author claimed to be responsible for three deaths and dozens of injuries in a mail bombing campaign that had already lasted 17 years, and was increasing in frequency. But if they made threats, how did the newspapers know that the attacker would keep his word – or that other terrorists would make similar demands in the future?
In September of that year, the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, at the urging of newspapers decided to publish, Because of its weekday printing capabilities, the Post included an eight-page insert to separate the manifesto from the regular news and opinion sections; The Times covered half the cost of The Post.
The manifesto provided vital clues to his identity, and six months and two weeks later, the Unabomber — Theodore Kaczynski, who died in a federal prison cell on Saturday — was captured. but for several In profession, Entry To mr kaczynski The demands set a terrible precedent, undermine journalistic freedom and do the bidding of law enforcement.
“They don’t know who this guy is, they can’t sue him for breach of contract if he bombs again,” Jane Kirtley, then-executive director of the Reporters Committee for Press Freedom, said in a statement. Said. Round table discussion immediately after the publication of the manifesto, “He really made a pact with the devil when he had no control over what he would do or not do.”
The Newspaper Association of America finds that its membership is evenly split. In a survey at the time, half of the 200 publishers who responded said they would run the manifesto, while the other half disagreed.
The Times and The Post made it clear that this was not an easy decision. It took them nearly the full 90 days allotted to them to think about it, and the choice was not left to newsroom leaders. Instead, the two publishers of the newspapers issued a joint statement saying they believed it could help save lives.
The Post’s then-publisher Donald E. Graham said, “There is no journalistic reason for any newspaper to print this.” Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who was publisher of The Times, agreed. “Whether you like it or not, we are turning our pages on a man who murdered people,” he said. “But I do believe we are making the right choice between bad choices.”
Following Mr. Kaczynski’s death on Saturday, Len Downey, who was executive editor of The Post in 1995, told the newspaper that his boss was finally vindicated when Mr. Kaczynski’s brother recognized the phrase and tipped off the FBI.
It was not the first time and will not be the last that the media has grappled with the question of whether to serve as a platform for content that may inspire others to take harmful action, or to mislead the public Is. The temptation to publish can be strong, especially when the documents are likely to attract a great deal of attention and have appreciable news value.
BuzzFeed News cut traffic in 2017 for publishing a dossier in which President Donald J. There were explosive allegations about Trump, for example, even though it was largely discredited years later. Manifestos written by perpetrators of mass shootings have often attracted intense interest, but news organizations now shy away from quoting them for fear of encouraging imitators.
“I think today we are having more conversations about harm reduction, and I think that is a good thing,” said Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Even in the 1990s, Dr. Culver said, brutal debate in journalism circles seemed academic to the public, when a killer was out on the loose and newspapers might have the power to stop him. “My main memory from that point on was saying to people outside the newsroom, ‘Why was this a question?'”
At the same time, however, newspapers faced criticism—and sometimes lost readers’ trust—for being too close to government officials. An example is the insufficiently critical reporting by The Times during the months preceding the war in Iraq in the early 2000s. The media’s failure to adequately investigate statements made by police departments in the wake of protests over the killing of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo., is another.
John Watson, a journalism professor at American University’s School of Communication, said newspapers should allow the Justice Department to purchase an advertising section for the manifesto, to meet Mr. Kaczynski’s demands by separating it from editorial decision-making. .
Dr. Watson said, “Journalists should never appear on the side of the police.” “Their ability to be watchdogs depends on the public believing that they will never be in bed with the government, that they will always be in doubt, even when it is clear that the government is right.”
Through a spokesman for the Times, Mr. Sulzberger declined an interview, citing his comments at the time. His son, AG Sulzberger, the current publisher of the Times, recently published a long meditation On the meaning and value of journalistic freedom. He did not respond to an email asking whether he would have made the same decision as his father.