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Media Literacy

Unabomber Case Study: Giving a Killer a Voice

As our FBI exhibit reopens with a focus on fighting crime in the age of terror, we offer a case study that explores the ethics of publishing the Unabomber’s manifesto.

Unabomber’s primitive cabin, on loan from the FBI. (Newseum photo)

Published Nov. 18, 2015. Updated May 1, 2018.

The Newseum’s popular FBI exhibit reopened in November 2015 with a new focus on fighting crime in the age of terror and more than 45 new artifacts. Remaining in the exhibit is the 10-by-12-foot primitive cabin of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski. In it, the serial killer assembled the bombs he mailed across the country that killed, injured and terrorized Americans for nearly two decades.

The news media covered the case — and then became part of it when the Unabomber sent a rambling manifesto to two  major newspapers. His demand for at least one of them to publish it in exchange for an end to the bomb attacks posed an ethical dilemma for the newspapers. Could publishing the long manifesto save lives? But does publishing it give the Unabomber the attention he craves and perhaps encourage other terrorists to make similar demands? The questions were many; the advice divided; the decision difficult.

Below we offer a classroom-ready case study to help students with the decision-making process. NewseumED uses a case-study approach in many of the media literacy and First Amendment classes it offers. We teach that ethics is asking a series of questions in an effort to make the “right” and justifiable decision. The Unabomber case study provides questions to help guide the discussion, as well as “the real story” and additional resources dealing with the ethical dilemma.

You can find additional case studies related to terrorism in our Freedom in the Balance section on our website.  The EDCollection uses the lens of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to explore the fragile balancing throughout U.S. history of the First Amendment freedoms with concerns for safety, diversity and the public good.

Case Study: Giving a Killer a Voice

You are the publisher of a major daily newspaper in the United States. A man known to the FBI as UNABOM —nicknamed “Unabomber” by the news media — has promised to stop a series of mail bomb attacks if your paper or another venerable newspaper publishes his 35,000-word, rambling manifesto and three follow-up documents. Over a period of 17 years, the terrorist’s homemade bombs have killed three people and injured 23 others.

Law enforcement officials want you to publish his treatise against modern society in hopes that someone might recognize his thinking and aid in his arrest.

The Unabomber has given you three months to publish his manifesto.

What do you do?

A. Publish the entire document. It could save lives and aid in an arrest.

B. Publish excerpts from the manifesto as a part of a news story.

C. Do not publish the entire document. It is the work of a killer and could encourage other terrorists to make similar demands.

D. Negotiate with the Unabomber to buy time or seek other solutions.

Questions to Consider:

  • What option did you choose and why?
  • Who are the stakeholders in your decision, what are their interests and motivations, and how would each be affected?
  • What is your role/responsibility as a journalist?
  • Is this a public-safety issue and, if so, is that reason enough to publish the manifesto?
  • Who, if anyone, would you consult in the decision-making process and how much influence would you give them?
  • What are the possible consequences of your decision?
  • Should a news organization be in the business of helping law enforcement?
  • Can you trust the Unabomber to end his attacks?
  • What are the dangers of acceding to a terrorist’s demands?
  • How do the journalism principles of “minimize harm” and “act independently” come into play?

The Real Story

In 1995, The Washington Post and The New York Times received letters from an anonymous serial mail bomber who offered to stop his nationwide attacks if one of the papers published his 35,000-word anarchist manifesto, titled “Industrial Society and Its Future.” The UNABOM case, which stood for UNiversity and Airline BOMbing because of the academics and corporate executives targeted, had baffled the FBI from 1978 to 1995.

After consulting with law enforcement and government officials, and at the urging of the U.S. attorney general, the Times and Post decided to collaborate and publish the manifesto verbatim. The Post printed an eight-page special section; the Times helped with the cost. The papers’ publishers called it the “right choice between bad options.”

The brother of Ted Kaczynski read the published manifesto, recognized the writing style and notified the FBI. Kaczynski, a former mathematics professor at the University of California-Berkeley, was captured at his 10-by-12-foot shack in the woods of Montana. He pleaded guilty to 13 federal bombing-related charges and was sentenced to life in prison.

In a statement to his staff, New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. defended the decision to publish the manifesto and said it would not set a precedent. “Newsrooms regularly receive messages from people threatening dire action unless their demands are met. Our traditional response will continue to serve us well — we notify law enforcement officials, when appropriate, and print nothing. … You print and he (the Unabomber) doesn’t kill anybody else, that’s a pretty good deal. You print and he continues to kill, what have you lost? The cost of newsprint?”


Additional Resources

Ethics of Journalism and Unabomber Case (The Christian Science Monitor)

Ethics of Publishing Terrorist Tracts (The Christian Science Monitor)

Manifesto Poses Ethical Dilemma for Two Newspapers (Washington Post)

The Post The Times and the Unabomber (Poynter)

Unabomber Case Holds Lessons For All Journalists (Poynter)

Listen to a Newseum Inside Media podcast with FBI agents in “Witness to History: Investigating the Unabomber.” 

Read the full manifesto.

The FBI exhibit features the Toyota Corolla abandoned by 9/11 hijackers at Dulles airport. (Newseum photo)

The Newseum’s “Inside Today’s FBI: Fighting Crime in the Age of Terror” exhibit runs indefinitely. The exhibit explores how the FBI detects and disrupts terrorists both at home and abroad, and thwarts powerful cyber criminals who steal data and money. Artifacts added in the renovation include handcuffs that restrained Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and a mobile fingerprinting device that identified his brother, Tamerlan, as well as the marathon bib and running shoes worn by Boston Globe reporter Michael Rezendes, who switched from running the marathon to reporting on the deadly bombings.

In addition to the Unabomber’s cabin, significant artifacts from the old FBI exhibit that remain on display are  engine parts and landing gear from United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into the World Trade Center south tower on Sept. 11, 2001, and the shoes worn by shoe bomber Richard Reid in an attempt to blow up an American Airlines flight in December 2001.

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