Did the Unabomber Decision Set a Precedent?
Christopher Harper teaches journalism at New York University. His book, And That's The Way It Will Be: News in the Digital Age, will be published by NYU Press next September.
Sixty-four-year-old Nathaniel Mayo was an angry man. A neighborhood activist who had made several attempts to stem the drug trade near his apartment house in Washington, D.C., Mayo was becoming increasingly frustrated that no one of importance would listen to him.
Then one day he came up with a plan to get some attention. He killed his neighbor, a 65-year-old woman, and critically injured another woman. He held a 75-year-old man hostage and called WJLA-TV, Washington, D.C.'s ABC affiliate, to ask reporter Del Walters for help.
Mayo had met Walters by chance a month prior to his murder spree. Now Mayo, surrounded by police sharpshooters outside his apartment, wanted Walters to help him surrender safely. WJLA agreed, though the station never even considered his request for air time.
Mayo's request, which Walters remembers vividly even now, seven years later, is typical of hostage-takers, who often call upon local reporters to provide safe passage into police custody.
If Nathaniel Mayo – who was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity – were making his demands today, he might have been more insistent about getting air time to voice his views. Many believe that today's media, following the Washington Post and New York Times' decision to publish the Unabomber's 35,000-word diatribe, are more vulnerable to criminal manipulation than they used to be. Media managers nationwide are troubled by the long term implications of the decision, wondering if copycats will now take advantage of murder and mayhem to get their 15 minutes of fame.
A joint statement by Post Publisher Donald Graham and Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. justified their decision by making reference to the Una-bomber's threat to send a bomb to an unspecified location "with intent to kill," if they did not, as well as to law enforcement officials' recommendation that public safety would be served by compliance with the Una-bomber's demands.
It was a decision that was debated heatedly and widely. The day after the manifesto appeared, the topic dominated television and radio talk programs and newspapers. A Presstime/
Newspaper Association of America poll found editors equally divided over the decision. A Unabomber summit convened by the Freedom Forum produced a lively debate, with defenders praising the Times and Post for their responsibility as "citizens" and critics warning this was a dangerous precedent.
Previous incidents are a mixed bag:
• In 1957 New York City's Journal-American published the writings of George P. Metesky, the legendary Mad Bomber. He was captured after someone recognized a telling phrase that had appeared in the newspaper.
• In 1974 the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. When the SLA demanded that the San Francisco Examiner publish items boosting its cause, the paper owned by her father complied without question. The SLA didn't release her.
• In 1976 Croatian nationalists killed a police officer with a bomb planted at Grand Central Station and hijacked a jet in New York. The terrorists threatened to set off another bomb and kill their hostages if major newspapers did not print a communiqué on their front pages. Four newspapers quickly published the hijackers' tract, which demanded creation of an independent Croatia. The terrorists surrendered in Paris, releasing their 62 hostages unharmed.
• In 1993, a Dallas radio station agreed to broadcast a message from David Koresh during his standoff with federal authorities in Waco, Texas. After the broadcast – aired at the request of the U.S. government – Koresh released more than 20 children. Koresh then offered to surrender if the station played an hour-long sermon over the air, which it did. He didn't keep his promise.
WJLA-TV News Vice President Gary Wordlaw is concerned that the Unabomber decision will put broadcast outlets and newspapers in the position of facing more tough decisions in the future. "When you're dealing with a life-and-death situation, it's easy to bend the rules," he says. "But what the Washington Post and the New York Times did was an injustice to all of us."
Nearly all news organizations have a set of standards and policies on how to react to a variety of conditions in reporting the news. Few, however, are prepared to deal with the questions and issues raised by the Una-bomber case.
At WCBS Radio in New York, Managing Editor Tony Gatto insists that no one engaging in criminal activity would be given an open microphone on the air.
On the other hand, Ralph Langer, executive editor of the Dallas Morning News, supports the decision to publish. "My first reaction was no, never," he says. "It seemed that it would open the door." He now argues that such incidents are exceedingly rare and that there are appropriate times for exceptions to the rules of journalism.
But the Baton Rouge Advocate disagreed. "Submission to blackmail only proves that it works," an Advocate editorial argued, "thus encouraging more of it, either by the blackmailer or someone else."