On Wednesday, June 28 at 10:21 p.m., Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie issued an urgent memo warning newsroom personnel to be on the lookout for a package from the Unabomber. The memo stated the package was addressed with “nine USA Old Glory stamps, a black rubber first class stamp,” and a Davis, Calif., return address.
The fact that the mailing contained a turgid, 35,000-word term paper on the ugly externalities of contemporary culture made it difficult to distinguish from any number of Post pro>jects that are languishing around the office, but by the next morning, the brown envelope—addressed to an editor on the National desk—had been found.
The package may not have been explosive, but the proposal it contained certainly was. The Unabomber vowed to end his 17-year reign of intermittent terror if either the Post or the New York Times published his diatribe in its entirety. The Unabomber granted right of first refusal to the Times, of course; even a lunatic recognizes the Times’ status as our nation’s paper of record. The Post did, however, edge out Penthouse magazine, where publishing visionary Bob Guccione—always on the lookout for something to separate the nudie pics—was hot to publish. The Post and Times each have internal discussions under way about the implications of publishing the free-lance bomber. The Post isn’t saying anything beyond Donald Graham’s statement that “The Post takes this communication very seriously. We are considering how to respond, and we are consulting with law enforcement officials.”
Prophylactic publication of the Unabomer’s screed—which was heavily excerpted in last Sunday’s Post—represents a new dimension in the debate over public journalism. Pragmatists might ask whether a couple of pages of newsprint aren’t worth the remote possibility that the Unabomber will actually shut down his fear factory if the Post lets him have his say. And close watchers of the Ben Bradlee era know that it wouldn’t be the first time that the paper allowed an agenda-ridden ideologue to decide what constitutes an appropriate use of ink at the Post.
In the main, though, it’s a horrible idea to give the Unabomber a clear shot at readers of either paper. Like most free-lancers, he’d probably find something in the editing or presentation of the piece that violated some unspoken contract and renew his campaign of idiosyncratic evil. The respective brain trusts at the Times and the Post should consider the feds’ ill- advised, panicky response to OK City, which has left our president imprisoned, knuckleheads emboldened, and downtown D.C. impassable. No one is made safer by letting the angriest among us call the shots.