Coddling the Bomber

You’d think Newsweek would have had enough of flattering accused terrorists
after its stagy photo-op and intimate one-on-one with Timothy McVeigh a few
weeks ago. But this week’s issue makes it clear that the road to a Newsweek
cover is lined with fertilizer and plastique. While we weren’t exactly
surprised to find the composite drawing of the Unabomber glowering at us
from the supermarket racks, we were a bit taken aback by the psychological
profile of the cover-bomber contained within. Consider the following
excerpts: “he is very intelligent… clearly in touch with everyday
reality.” The Unabomber’s notorious letters are “preachy, chatty, ironic,
and even subtly self-mocking. They are surely the most remarkable letters
any serial killer ever wrote.” (If only that dog that “spoke” to Son of Sam
had been able to type!) And then this: “The Unabomber, in his letter to the
New York Times, makes violence seem almost reasonable: how else, he says,
could he get his Luddite views considered by major news organizations?” How
else could a lonely, tree-loving psychopath get his portrait splashed
across the cover of a national periodical, and his missives reviewed with
language usually reserved for the latest Philip Roth novel? How else
indeed?

Newsweek’s genuflections aside, the Unabomber’s publish-or-perish mandate
has raised some important questions about the role of the Fourth Estate in
today’s media society. Most commentators have hemmed and hawed over the
question of whether the Times should publish the 35,000-word anti-tech
manifesto. But on This Week with David Brinkley (our favorite Sunday
morning pundit-fest), George Will flatly declared that the document should
be printed, no questions asked. When Sam Donaldson politely reminded Will
of his lifelong opposition to negotiating with terrorists, the bow-tied
conservative countered with a sharp, declarative sentence: “Newspapers are
not governments.”

Well, yes, fair enough — newspapers aren’t governments. But asserting that
fact doesn’t do away with the more important issue here, an issue that the
Unabomer’s reign of terror only underscores: in contemporary American
society, the mass media are frequently more powerful than governments —
particularly when it comes to the “marketplace of ideas.” That’s why the
Unabomer is angling for an extended op-ed in the Times, and not an audience
with high-tech politicos like Al Gore or Newt Gingrich. You don’t see any
would-be revolutionaries bartering for a closed door session with the
Commerce department. Any self-respecting terrorist understands that the
direct line to the body politic runs through the arteries of mass media.
Which is precisely why the New York Times, the Washington Post, and even —
God help us — Penthouse should be subject to the same moral accountability
we ask of our government. Coverage is the gold standard in this new
information economy. The Unabomber knows it. Even Bob Guccione knows it.
So why is a media darling like George Will still clinging to these outmoded
beliefs?

— S.J. (July 1995)

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