Speaking of the future of industrial society . . .

September 22, 1995|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- On Tuesday, the full tract of a treatise on ''Industrial Society and Its Future'' blackmailed its way into the Washington Post, co-sponsored by the New York Times.

Three months ago, the man called ''FC,'' who had killed three people and injured another 23, gave the two papers an ultimatum. Print my words and I'll stop. Don't print them and I'll kill again. As the Times' Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said Monday, ''Whether you like it or not, we're turning our pages over to a man who has murdered people.''

Well, I don't like it. I hate it. The impenetrable text of this screed against technology and in favor of ''wild nature'' is not so threatening that it's dangerous to let loose upon the public. As the author wrote, ''We are not the first to mention that the world today seems to be going crazy.'' But like most journalists, I take these pages seriously and don't believe someone should be able to scare his way into them.

The irony is that terrorists have always wanted attention. Violence has increasingly become the medium by which they get the media to deliver their message. We in the media may have aided them too generously in the years since the Iranians held both the news and the Carter White House hostage.

''Stars'' of terrorism

Indeed in the proliferation of infotainment, the competition has made ''stars'' in the terrorist firmament. Bob Guccione offered ''FC'' a regular column in Penthouse.

If ''Current Affair'' or ''Entertainment Tonight'' had been told of a video what would they have done? Bid for it?

But newspapers have stuck to the first principle that nobody tells us what to print. Or not print. Not a terrorist, not the FBI, not the attorney general.

Now the Unabomber has told two of our finest papers what to print. And the attorney general urged them to print it, as the Times' Mr. Sulzberger and the Post's Donald Graham put it, for ''public safety reasons.''

So is born a new variation on the theme of headline-grabbing: Bomb your way to a byline. We have proved the Unabomber's point: ''In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we've had to kill people.'' The decision to publish has made newspapers vulnerable to the crazy copycats out there, looking for a new act to imitate.

Yet with all these deep reservations, I believe that the Post and the Times made what Mr. Sulzberger described as ''the right choice between bad options.''

Here is a list of those bad options:

On the one hand, journalistic ethics and the fear of endless copycats. But on the other hand, a credible threat to human life.

One headline blaring the news that the Unabomber strikes anyway. Or another headline blaring the news that the author of a rejected manuscript killed someone else.

Players, not observers

Eight pages of newsprint. Or the printed obituary of another scientist.

Any way you balance them, the immediate human concerns -- lives -- weigh most heavily. Anyway you look at it, the media are players in this story, and in this country, not just observers. If copycats come, we will face that consequence. But for the moment, this absolutely rotten decision is the right one.

This is the sorry fact about the world the Unabomber decries as hostile to individual freedom. It's a place increasingly vulnerable to individual violence.

This time the institution under attack isn't in the news. It is the news. Read all about it.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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