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On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2000 / 28 Shevat 5761

Sam Schulman

Sam Schulman
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Loving the Unabomber --
"MEDICAL ETHICS" can kill, but journalistic ethics merely maim. I recommend for winter reading the collection of fawning letters written by journalists to Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, recently posted on the website, and spotlighted on "Page Six." It's fun to see Katie Couric offering the killer of three "a chance to explain your experiences to our huge audience and also the opportunity to share your views and concerns, which I know you've long wanted to do." And to overhear her making "warm" to K: "As an aside, you must be very happy with the recent decision by the federal appeals court to hear your request to withdraw your guilty plea."

It's less funny to overhear Don Dahler, speaking for the Disney Corp./ABC's Good Morning America, sympathize when he wonders about the accuracy of the government's release of Kaczynski's journals-because who can trust the government?-and when he confesses-one environmentalist to another-that "I'm as intrigued by your comments on the morality of your actions as I am by your strong feelings about the environmental ravages of technology." Another of the "world's most respected journalists," Barbara Walters, is equally keen to interview Kaczynski, to give him a chance to "explore the themes raised in your book"-themes perhaps inadequately enunciated by a 17-year-long campaign of bombing, maiming and killing.

And one can hardly be surprised by the folksy fellowship Bryan Denson, a reporter from The Oregonian, expressed toward this noted philosopher of the natural world: "I only want to talk to you for about two hours about the environment, the natural world, wild nature. I'd like to talk with you about deep ecology, about the isolation you sought in Montana, about the monkeywrenching you took credit for, about Earth First and the radical environmental movement... That's it." When he saw Kaczynski arraigned for murder, Denson was overwhelmed with feelings that can only be called transcendentalist: "I kept thinking of Walden…of solitude interrupted. I still don't know what to make of any of it."

All this kvelling over Kaczynski's deep feeling for the natural world-this putting in perspective his "monkeywrenching"-a term that comprehends 16 bombs, 3 dead and 23 wounded-reminds me of the original posturing on the part of Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, over whether to publish the "manifesto" in 1995 in compliance with the then-unknown Unabomber's offer to cease killing. Janet Reno and Louis Freeh seemed to feel that publication couldn't hurt and might help. The Times-and The Washington Post-decided to sail under the flag of public good and publish the essay, where it garnered immense respectful attention.

But the truth is that there was another reason for publication-or at least another reason that argued against not publishing. That reason is what the Times and Post felt to be the essential acceptability of the Unabomber's views. What if the Unabomber's "issues" were different? What if Kaczynski had demanded, say, the publication of a long tome explaining why African-Americans are genetically inferior? Or made a vivid argument that a fetus felt human pain and fear during an abortion? Or presented a carefully argued case that the Holocaust never took place, or a heartfelt plea that male psychoanalysts should date their lady patients? Sulzberger and Graham would have stood proudly on principle and refused to publish.

A little-noticed proviso in Kaczynski's offer to the Times in April 1995 makes the whole thing moot. In fact, Kaczynski never made a promise to call off the killings. As Sharon LaFraniere and Pierre Thomas reported in The Washington Post, July 1, 1995, in a letter to the Times written in April 1995 "the bomber reserves the right to continue destroying property, and wrote the Times that the deal is off if law enforcement officials come after him."

Of course Freeh and Reno could have given no such assurance to the two publishers. So the point made by Graham-"We are printing it for public safety reasons, not journalistic reasons"-could never have been the case. The Unabomber's promise-however unreliable-was never even made.

In fact, the publication of the Unabomber manifesto was a sly endorsement of the respectability of Kaczynski's views. The behavior of the journalists trying to bag an interview confirms this respectability. Not one of them questions his motives-though several felt he went a bit over the top in his actions. But after all, it's not just you, Ted-even Roseanne "is a non-conformist and rarely does what society expects of her," as her producer Larry Ish points out to Kaczynski. No, the journalistic establishment acted, in a peculiar way, to defend free speech: by publishing the Unabomber Manifesto, the Times and the Post defended to somebody else's death the right of Ted Kaczynski to have his say.

Sam Schulman Archives

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.


© 2000 by Sam Schulman