Unabomber News History

Copyright 1995 The Chronicle Publishing Co.

The San Francisco Chronicle



LENGTH: 626 words

HEADLINE: Unabomber's Demand Poses Familiar Dilemma for Journalists

BYLINE: Bill Wallace, Chronicle Staff Writer


By demanding that the New York Times publish a 35,000-word political communique, the mysterious Unabomber is attempting to extort from the media a direct line of communication with the public.

It is a well-established technique used by terrorist groups, and mass communications experts say it is fraught with ethical dilemmas for the media.

In a letter received by the Times earlier this week, the terrorist known as the Unabomber promised to stop his 17-year practice of mailing explosive devices to his victims if the Times, Newsweek or Time magazine publishes his lengthy ''anarchist'' manifesto.

''We have a long article, between 29,000 and 37,000 words, that we want to have published,'' the bomber said in a letter issued under the name ''terrorist group FC.''

''If you can get it published according to our requirements we will permanently desist from terrorist activities . . . If the answer is satisfactory, we will finish typing the manuscript and send it to you. If the answer is unsatisfactory, we will start building our next bomb.''

The Times said that while its pages ''can't be held hostage by those who threaten violence, it is willing to review the bomber's manuscript and ''make a journalistic decision about whether to publish it.''

The bomber's demand is hardly original: during the last four decades, terrorists on both the left and right have frequently threatened violence in order to force newspapers and electronic media to publicize their demands.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, rag-tag collections of left- wing terrorist groups, including the New World Liberation Front, Environmental Liberation Front and the Emiliano Zapata Unit, bombed electric power utilities, businesses and the homes and offices of public officials. In the 1980s, a right-wing bomber who went by the name ''Shiva'' bombed two bank branches and a telephone company office.

In almost every case, the bombers issued communiques with demands that they be published in full or broadcast on radio and television. ''Shiva'' -- a deranged vet named Howard Henton -- even phoned a local newspaper to give an interview.

Although the underground press printed many of the communiques in their entirety, most mainstream newspapers published only excerpts.

In perhaps the most highly publicized case, a group called the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst from her home in Berkeley in 1974 and threatened to kill her if the San Francisco Examiner, owned by her family, did not run its political messages in their entirety. The Examiner complied.

Sig Gissler, a journalism professor at Columbia University and former editor of the Milwaukee Journal newspaper, said such attempts to extort media coverage pose a delicate ethical quandary for newspapers, radio and television outlets.

''You always run the serious risk of feeding the mental disturbance behind this kind of stuff,'' Gissler said. ''You have to weigh the possibility that you are supporting the terrorists themselves by publishing their materials. That's why most of the media doesn't report on bomb threats.''

Extremists' efforts to harness the media can also backfire, because their repeated contacts with the media can provide investigators with clues, law enforcement officials say.

''In my own experience, when a person who is in the background starts coming forward for more recognition, or wants to talk, it's a sign he is looking for communication,'' said Ed Gleba, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in San Francisco. ''What's next? He might call you, or call a reporter. When that happens, clues start popping up . . . If this guy slips up, we've got him.''