In June 1995, hefty packages arrived in the mail rooms of The Washington Post and The New York Times with identical contents: single-space typed copies of a document called “Industrial Society and Its Future,” with a note from an anonymous sender who said he would kill again unless the newspapers published the manifesto in its entirety within 90 days.
The danger was credible. The author claimed that he was responsible for the deaths of three people and the injuries of dozens in a 17-year-old mail bombing campaign, which had been increasing in frequency. But if they gave in to the threat, how did the newspapers know the bomber would keep his word — or whether other terrorists would make such demands in the future?
The newspapers published the manifesto in September of that same year at the request of the Justice Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Because of its weekday printing capabilities, The Post ran the manifesto as an eight-page insert to distinguish it from the regular news and opinion sections; The Times covered half The Post’s costs.
The manifesto provided critical clues to his identity, and six months and two weeks later, the Unabomber — Theodore Kaczynski, who died in a federal prison cell on Saturday — was captured. But to many in the profession, acceding to Mr. Kaczynski’s demands set a terrible precedent, undermining journalistic independence and doing the bidding of law enforcement.
“They don’t know who this guy is, they can’t sue him for breach of contract if he bombs again,” said Jane Kirtley, then the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a round-table discussion soon after the manifesto’s publication. “They really made a pact with the devil when they have no control ultimately over what he will do or not do.”
The Newspaper Association of America’s membership was evenly divided. A poll conducted at the time found that exactly half of 200 publishers responded saying they would have published the manifesto. The other half disagreed.
The Times and The Post made clear it wasn’t an easy decision. They took nearly the whole 90 days allotted to think about it, and the choice wasn’t left to newsroom leaders. Instead, the newspapers’ two publishers issued a joint statement saying that they believed it could help save lives.
“Neither paper has any journalistic reason to print this,” said Donald E. Graham, then publisher of The Post. Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was The Times’ publisher at the time. “Whether you like it or not, we’re turning our pages over to a man who has murdered people,” he said. “But I’m convinced we’re making the right choice between bad options.”
After Mr. Kaczynski’s death on Saturday, Len Downie, who was the executive editor of The Post in 1995, told the newspaper that his boss was ultimately vindicated when Mr. Kaczynski’s brother recognized the phrasing and tipped off the F.B.I.
It wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last that the media has grappled with the question of whether to serve as a platform for material that might inspire others to take harmful actions, or might mislead the public. The temptation to release documents can be great, especially when they could attract a lot attention and have plausible value as news.
BuzzFeed News was rewarded for publishing in 2017 a dossier that contained explosive claims about Donald J. Trump even though the document was widely discredited a few years later. The manifestos written by mass shooters are often highly sought after, but many news organizations do not want to excerpt them for fear of inciting copycats.
“I think today we have more conversations about minimizing harm, and I think that’s a good thing,” said Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Culver stated that the debates within journalism circles in the 90s seemed to be academic to many of the public. A killer was out on the streets and newspapers had the potential to stop him. “My principal memory from the time was people outside newsrooms saying, ‘Why was this a question?’”
At the same time, however, newspapers have faced criticism — and sometimes lost readers’ faith — for being too close to government authorities. The Times, in the months preceding the Iraq War in early 2000s, was accused of not being critical enough. A second is the media’s failure to adequately scrutinize statements by police departments in the wake of protests over the killing of an unarmed Black teenager in Ferguson, Mo.
John Watson, a journalism professor at American University’s School of Communication, said the newspapers should have allowed the Justice Department to buy an advertorial section for the manifesto, to satisfy Mr. Kaczynski’s demands while separating it from editorial decision making.
“Journalists should never be seen to be on the same side as the police,” Dr. Watson said. “Their ability to be watchdogs depends on the public believing that they will never be in bed with the government, they will always be skeptical, even if it is obvious that the government is right.”
Sulzberger declined to give an interview through a Times spokesperson. He referred back to his remarks from the past. A.G. Sulzberger is the son of Mr. Sulzberger and the current Times publisher. He recently published a lengthy meditation on the value and meaning of journalistic freedom. He did not reply to an email that asked if he would make the same decision as father.