To the proprietors of Western newspapers, freedom of the press means freedom from state control or interference. The implied condition attached to that freedom is that newspapers will present what they conceive to be the most significant, interesting or entertaining news of the day both accurately and impartially. But do newspapers and newsmagazines have a larger responsibility to their communities, one that overrides their exclusive and jealously guarded right to decide what they will publish? Last week, two of North America's most influential and respected newspapers - The New York Times and The Washington Post - reluctantly concluded that duty went beyond all the news that's fit to print. At the request of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and the FBI, the Post - with the Times' concurrence and financial support - published the 35,000-word manifesto of a serial killer who said he would not kill again if they did. "We're turning our pages over to man who has murdered people," said Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., "but I'm convinced that we're making the right choice between bad options."
Capitulating to the demands of the so-called Unabomber - the most sought-after and elusive killer in the United States - touched off an impassioned debate among journalists and academics. Some agreed with Sulzberger and Post publisher Donald Graham that given the further threat to human life - the Unabomber has already killed three people and injured 23 others in 16 mail bombings since 1978 - the two papers had no choice. Other critics said the decision was ethically and morally wrong because it compromised the newspapers' public trust and will only encourage imitators.
However, said Montreal Gazette publisher Michael Goldbloom, he would probably have sided with Sulzberger and Graham because the Unabomber's trail of destruction pointed to a serious threat that publication might well diminish. "There is no right answer," said Goldbloom. "They would have been criticized no matter what decision they had made because that just comes with the territory." If he were ever faced with a similar situation, Goldbloom said, the nature of the material he was being asked to publish would have a bearing on what he would do. "There's nothing I've seen in the Unabomber's manifesto that strikes me as inappropriate for publication," he said. "If it were a racist diatribe, that would invoke other considerations."
In fact, the manifesto has the labored earnestness of a college term paper. The bomber writes about the Industrial Revolution ("its consequences have been a disaster for the human race") and political correctness and "leftism" ("political correctness has its stronghold among university professors who have secure employment with comfortable salaries"). Academics variously described the manifesto as cautious, humorless, dogged, intelligent, illogical and sometimes foolish.
But what worried journalists was not the killer's literary style but the decision to publish what he had written. John Honderich, publisher of The Toronto Star, said that he had "very, very strong reservations" about the action. "It sets an awful precedent and really might encourage copycats to demand the same thing. If we get involved in that kind of blackmail, it's a bottomless pit and one I wouldn't want to go into." At the same time, he said, "I guess it's blood on your hands if it later comes out that you could have saved someone's life had you gone ahead and printed something."
Maclean's editor Robert Lewis said that while he opposed the action of the Times and the Post in principle, "if there is the possibility of capturing the terrorist or terrorists, or stopping the bombing, you have to keep an open mind. We are not privy to what law enforcement officials told the publishers. You have to judge such extraordinary cases on their merits."
Duncan McMonagle, executive editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, had similar reservations. If such a demand were made of the Free Press, said McMonagle, "we would have to consider how credible was the threat. We would have to get the best assessment from the experts as to whether the threat would be carried out if we didn't publish." But "my own gut feeling is that it would hardly ever be right to give in to that kind of blackmail, hardly ever."
For editors, publishers, journalism teachers and academic moralists, it was an issue that deserved to be addressed and scores obliged. Even the Unabomber had an opinion. Freedom of the press, he wrote in his manifesto, "is a very important tool for limiting concentration of political power and for keeping those who do have political power in line by publicly exposing any misbehavior on their part." Given different circumstances, Arthur Sulzberger and Donald Graham probably would have endorsed every word.
Maclean's October 2, 1995