Desperately Seeking the News 


W>hile journalists pontificate over The Washington Post’s decision last week to publish the Unabomber’s 35,000- word diatribe against technology, copies of the Post’s eight-page, pull-out special section quickly disappeared from newsstands in Nashville and across the country. The Post itself has no more copies to sell.

The Unabomber—“un” for university targets, “a” for the airline he attacked—demanded in June that either The Post or The New York Times print his 35,000-word manuscript within three months. Apparently responsible for three deaths and 16 bombings, including a 1982 explosion at Vanderbilt, the Unabomber threatened more murders if the papers failed to comply, but he promised to stop killing if one of the papers would publish his half-baked, Luddite treatise. Explaining that federal law enforcement officials “have now recommended that we print this document for public safety reasons,” the publishers of The Times and The Post announced last Monday that The Post would publish the bomber’s manuscript. The papers would split the cost.

“The role of the journalist is to report the facts, not look out for public safety. That’s the government’s role,” complained Michael Gartner, former president of NBC News. Gartner, one recalls, left NBC after a network producer rigged a gas tank explosion to illustrate allegations that GM trucks were unsafe. Gartner even suggested that the government buy ad space in The Post to print the Unabomber’s manuscript—as if The Post’s First Amendment principles would be less compromised if the paper got paid for trying to save lives.

“The press has been hijacked by this decision,” said Charles Overby, the former Banner reporter who is now president of The Freedom Forum/First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt. Overby made his reputation as Jimmy Stahlman’s hatchet man at the writing vicious right-wing attacks against the publisher’s political enemies. Overby and Gartner spoke at Vanderbilt last week at a roundtable discussion of the Unabomber’s demands. The conference was sponsored by The First Amendment Center.

Some journalists were more responsible. “When it comes to a choice between saving lives and journalistic principles,” Marvin Kalb reportedly said, “I’m going to save lives and worry about the principles tomorrow.”

The real issue is whether The or any other newspaper, should step out of the observer’s role “for public safety reasons.”

The Post’s decision may or may not stop the bombing or aid in the Unabomber’s capture. But if one believes that the threat is serious and that the bomber’s promise to stop the killing may be genuine, there should be no serious debate over whether or not to print the manuscript. Penthouse offered to do it. The Oakland Tribune printed the entire text, not because of any threat but because readers wanted to see it.

The next time you hear a journalist complain that the press is in danger of being “hijacked” by terrorists, remember that the Unabomber’s manuscript filled eight pages—the same amount of space occupied by “R.S.V.P.,” The Tennessean’s weekly society photo spread. Unlike last Tuesday’s extra copies of “R.S.V.P.” are readily available.

Odds and ends

When is a story not a story? Bill Snyder, the Banner’s usually reliable medical reporter, appeared on the sports page last week, writing that college football players may have a hard time controlling their aggressive behavior off the field. Snyder’s entire story hinged on an interview with a “sports psychologist” at Berkeley who said that her “research demonstrates a very high correlation” between aggression on the field and in daily life. Deeper into the story, however, Snyder wrote that the psychologist “does not know” whether athletes tend to commit more assaults than non-athletes. Way down in paragraph 16 of Snyder’s story, the psychologist conceded that “we don’t have any statistics” to back up the aggressive behavior theories.

♦ Statistics abounded, on the other hand, in The Tennessean’s Sunday mega-story alleging that, in federal court, black criminals, on average, are sentenced to three months more jail than white criminals are. The Tennessean’s “investigation” by recently hired reporter Laura Frank consisted of a computer analysis of all 1992-93 sentencing decisions and interviews with federal judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and legal scholars—not one of whom could point to a single incident of overt racism in any federal court to support Frank’s story. The Tennessean’s analysis purported to account for differences in the crimes committed and the criminals’ prior records, but, as the chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission pointed out, the three-month difference may be attributed, in part, to factors not measured by Frank: the defendants’ job histories, their ages and family ties, and the likelihood that they are repeat offenders. All of these are factors that judges may properly consider in the sentencing process.

Frank’s only example of “racism” in a Middle Tennessee federal court involved two defendants who were both charged with robbing a bank by passing a note to a teller. The white criminal was sentenced to three years, one month; the black defendant got three years, six months. Illustrating her story with pictures of both robbers, Frank implied that this five-month difference in the sentences showed that the judge was racially biased. As it happens, both defendants were represented by public defender Moriah Wooten, also black, who told the reporter she saw no evidence of judicial bias in the Middle Tennessee courts.

♦ Former Nashville mayor and talk show host Bill Boner returns to the air this week from 8 to 10 a.m. on station WAPB, 810-AM, a 5,000-watt, clear-channel station based in Murfreesboro.

Boner, who said he’s the only talk show host to interview Don Sundquist, will interview politicians and focus on Nashville current events and community activities, a format similar to Teddy Bart’s Roundtable.

To comment or complain about the media, leave a message for Henry at the (244-7989, ext. 445), or call him at 252-2363.


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