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Trial by the Book

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By Michael Miner

Should we string up Ted Kaczynski now or observe the formalities? Stalin's show trials and the kangaroo courts of bug-eyed Klansmen were judicial travesties. But even today we like going to court not to see guilt established but properly packaged.

Especially today. "Americans have always equated truth with our system of justice, but never have so many had the opportunity to decide for themselves," F. Richard Ciccone wrote in "Truth and the American Way," an essay in last Sunday's Chicago Tribune. "Now the conclusions of juries can be compared with the perception of events that millions witnessed."

When the ribbon comes off the wrapping, when rough handling cracks open the package--when, in short, the jury's conclusions don't comport with the public's perceptions--those millions get mad as hell. Notorious examples are the acquittals of O.J. Simpson and the cops who beat Rodney King.

Leaf through Media Circus, a 1993 critique of newspapers by the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz; we soon come to William Smith, the Kennedy-clan scion charged with rape in Palm Beach in 1991. In this sad case guilt was packaged carelessly by everyone, press and jury alike. Kurtz concludes the coverage was reprehensible: The media let Smith off easy, while his accuser was improperly named and dirtied up. Kurtz calls one particular New York Times piece a "scurrilous portrait" of the accuser that sent the message "she asked for it." He quotes Anna Quindlen recalling a rape of a Wellesley alum in Central Park: "If you're raped by a bunch of black teenagers, you get protected, and if you're raped by someone who is rich and powerful, you get taken to the cleaners."

Quindlen made a good point. But her insight loses some of its authority if it turns out there was no rape to begin with. Smith was acquitted by a jury that talked it over all of 27 minutes. Kurtz at least mentions this outcome, but without thinking twice about who got a fair shake and who didn't. He doesn't let the acquittal make the slightest dent in his argument, which is that the media behaved unforgivably in violating the privacy of the woman whose accusations didn't stand up in court.

In the matter of the Unabomber no one who's desperate for anonymity is pressing charges. There's no privacy to betray but the privacy of Kaczynski himself--and his family--and Kaczynski doesn't deserve a break if he's guilty. You don't doubt that he did it, do you? I suppose I don't either. And Time magazine is certain. It assumes Kaczynski's guilt from the first word of the title to the back cover of its quicky paperback Mad Genius: The Odyssey, Pursuit, and Capture of the Unabomber Suspect.

Kaczynski's the suspect. If Time weren't sure he's a serial killer, how would Time dare call him mad? If he's an innocent hermit isn't he simply very, very eccentric?

The back cover says this: "The Most Wanted Killer in American History." (Tell that to, say, Timothy McVeigh or John Wilkes Booth. But hyperbole's sure to burst from any book written and edited in 11 days.) And it goes on, "For eighteen years he eluded authorities and became the target of the most exhaustive manhunt in U.S. history. Then on April 3, 1996, FBI agents swooped down on a plywood shack in Montana, and the world got its first glimpse of Theodore John Kaczynski, the man authorities suspect is the Unabomber."

Some weasel wording is constructed so artfully that its meaning is crystal clear at the same time its ambiguity makes it unactionable. In the paragraph quoted above, who's the antecedent for the "he" of "he eluded authorities"? Can it be anyone but Kaczynski? And if Kaczynski eluded authorities, Kaczynski's the Unabomber, because an innocent Kaczynski wouldn't have been eluding anybody. But at the top of the back cover Time cleverly planted another possibility: "Killer." Most Wanted Killer eluded authorities. Sure, that's all Time meant. Kaczynski's simply the guy arrested.

But "Kaczynski" and "Unabomber" and "killer" aren't always commingled with such exquisite care. The book's first chapter tells us: "The manifesto gave the hunters a much clearer sense of what kind of man they might be dealing with; but only one person could read that treatise, hear its message and recognize the messenger." That person was Kaczynski's brother David. If David Kaczynski recognized the messenger, the messenger must have been Ted. The same chapter says straight out, "The arrest of Ted Kaczynski brought to an end the longest, most expensive hunt for a serial killer in U.S. history." It's only over if they got the right guy.

Publicists are like headline writers. They come right out and say things that journalists, with their legalistic rituals, can only imply. The PR material that arrived with Mad Genius couldn't be more explicit. It says the book "traces Kaczynski's life from his Illinois childhood, through Harvard, and his brilliant--and disturbing--academic career that eventually devolved into his war against modern society." It describes Mad Genius as "the definitive story of the Unabomber's life" (not the Unabomber suspect's life), and it asserts flat-out that "on April 3rd, Theodore John Kaczynski was arrested....The Unabomber, at last, had been caught."

"I suspect that if we were in Canada or one of the other countries that have laws of prior restraint this book would have been written in a very different form or not at all," said James Graff, a Chicago correspondent for Time who contributed to Mad Genius. What Graff meant is that there are countries that do not allow their media to pollute--that's how those countries see it--the atmosphere in which a trial will have to be held.

In the name of informing the public, the American media rarely fear this contamination. "There's certainly a line," said Lee Aitken, the senior editor who organized and edited Mad Genius. "The word 'suspect' is on the cover, and we were quite conscious and careful to tell Ted's story and the bomber's stories in separate chapters when we were in evidentiary territory.

"Now, a close reader of the book I'm sure could go back and find moments when that careful distinction got wobbly. But as a practical matter, when we went to press all our FBI sources were evidencing a very high level of certainty [about Kaczynski's guilt]. And the book was vetted by lawyers who don't let us go over the line. The fundamental question was, would we be in print if we didn't think he was guilty? No, we wouldn't. We've satisfied our own standard of reasonable doubt."

"Clearly there is a conflict," said Graff. "On the one side is the notion everyone is innocent until proven guilty. On the other side is the doctrine, fairly well established in America, that prior restraint is not something that can be expected of the press or something that in the long run fulfills the dictates of justice. I mean, the book presumes an interest on the part of the public in knowing the man who is suspected of being the Unabomber. It doesn't presume his guilt."

I think Graff's wrong. First, Mad Genius does presume Kaczynski's guilt, and presumes it on the basis of what Time was told by the FBI--which is like a jury making up its mind after listening only to the prosecution. Second, there's no inevitable conflict between the presumption of innocence and the absence of prior restraint. The unrestrained press can report--or not report--whatever it pleases; it's under no moral obligation to race into print with a fascinating tale that will make a "fair trial"--to use a quaint, old-fashioned phrase--that much harder for Kaczynski to get.

"We refer to him as the suspect," said Graff. "I don't know to what extent that's a linguistic conceit. It's possible you can say it is."

"Linguistic conceit" is dead-on. When the press thinks a felon's roaming free it behaves righteously by speaking out, presenting its evidence, and demanding action. When the public's on notice, the suspect's in jail, and the state is whetting its sword, a book such as Mad Genius inflames as much as it edifies. We're headed for one more trial that either comes to a preordained conclusion or maddens the multitudes.

Guilt is appealable, innocence is risible, and most cases are wrapped up with a deal. If ever a high form of truth could be claimed by the courtroom, that day's over. "Like beauty, truth is now in the eye of the beholder," wrote Richard Ciccone. This ambiguity, he went on, "may explain, in part, the fascination in America with sport." Criminal law has become a sport of its own. Like the final scores of any other big games, verdicts make spectators feel wonderful or terrible and in no way change their lives. The black-white divide revealed by the O.J. Simpson verdict was so fundamental it should have been compared to the opposite realities of Bulls and Knicks fans defined when Scottie Pippen bumped Hubert Davis.

Senior editor Lee Aitken recalled asking a Time attorney after the verdict was in whether the magazine could still publish the opinion that Simpson was "guilty as hell." Sure, said the attorney. Where's the line we should stay away from? asked Aitken, who supposed there must be a line because, after all, Simpson had been acquitted. "And I remember her saying, 'What line? Do you think O.J. wants to have this whole trial again?'"

No line. No truth. No prior restraint. And now a book telling the tale of a weird-looking man with a strange past who's been charged with nothing more serious yet than possession of bomb components.

News Bites

The editorial offices of the Daily Southtown and Star Publications, a chain of south-suburban weekly newspapers, both owned--as is the Sun-Times--by Hollinger International, will set up shop together this September in a former Gately's department store Hollinger just bought in Tinley Park. "There's no intention here to merge the products," says Norman Rosinski, publisher of both operations. "Just to get efficiencies out of commonly owned products."

By sending one reporter instead of two, "we'll free up resources to make the Star more local and make the Southtown more complete as a regional daily." What's incomplete about it now? I asked. "Some features. Certain enterprise stuff," Rosinski said. "We're not doing enterprise stuff to the extent we could be doing it. We don't have columnists, certain court beats."

To oversee the combined newsroom Rosinski's bringing in Peter Neill, senior vice president for editorial production at Hollinger's Pioneer Press. His arrival next week knocks the Southtown's editor, Michael Kelley, down a peg. And Rosinski's observation about what the Southtown could be doing better comes at an odd time. Kelley's paper had better local Unabomber coverage than either the Tribune or Sun-Times, and later in April it carried an impressive five-part investigation of a landfill operation in Will County. And columnist Phil Kadner was honored recently by the Illinois PTA for his coverage of state funding of education.

Follow the bouncing headlines: Sun-Times, May 8: "U.S. Audit Finds Problems With Moseley-Braun Fund."

Tribune, May 8: "U.S. audit clears Moseley-Braun."

Sun-Times, May 9: "Audit Settled, Moseley-Braun Will Run in '98."

Tribune, May 9: "Campaign audit leaves questions."

More headlines, these compiled as a cheap shot I'm taking at the expense of good and able yeomen who couldn't resist the irresistible.

Washington Post: "Grindstone Puts Nose to the Wire, Wins Derby."

Los Angeles Times: "By a Nose to Grindstone."

Providence Sunday Journal and Omaha World-Herald: "Grindstone wins by a nose."

South Bend Tribune: "Grindstone by a nose."

Peoria's Journal Star: "Derby nose is to Grindstone."

Boston Sunday Globe: "In Derby, nose to Grindstone."

Louisville's Courier-Journal: "Lukas extends his dynasty with a nose to Grindstone."

Chicago Sun-Times: "Nose to the Grindstone."

Chicago Tribune: "Grindstone's nose takes him to roses."

Chicago Tribune lead: "Grindstone put his nose to the grindstone..."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannah.

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